The rising death toll from the coronavirus pandemic is prompting more people, from young health care professionals to the elderly, to prepare their wills in a hurry. Credit: Frank Augstein | AP

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The rising death toll from the coronavirus pandemic is prompting more people, from young health care professionals to the elderly, to prepare their wills in a hurry — a task complicated by social distancing and fear of catching the bug.

That has lawyers in the U.S. improvising with some offbeat measures.

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Neil Fang, an estate lawyer in Woodbury, New York, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) east of Manhattan, said one wealthy couple in their 50s was so spooked by the outbreak that they rushed to complete their will last weekend, meeting him in the law firm’s parking lot while wearing face masks and plastic gloves. The couple signed the will on the hood of their slate gray Porsche Carrera, while Fang and his law partner looked on as the state’s two legally-required witnesses.

“We kept a distance of about six to 10 feet the whole time,” Fang, who’s practiced law for about 25 years, said in a phone interview.

With more than 60,000 infections and 800 deaths, the U.S. is now the third hardest-hit country after China and Italy. At least 179 million people in 18 states are being urged to stay home and to keep their distance from others when venturing out for groceries or exercise.

Joseph Cooter, an estate planning lawyer in Oakland, California, has seen an uptick in business with inquiries from clients young and old. He said he typically sits down with clients in their homes. But over the weekend, he carried a foldable card table in his car and set it up in a clients’ driveway.

“We had to do signatures outside and stand far away from each other,” Cooter said.

“Going forward, gloves are certainly a good idea and masks as well. I don’t have any masks and I’m not sure how I would get one.”

Rebecca Goldfarb, an estate planning attorney in Los Angeles, said she witnesses the signing of documents through a window between her office and a meeting room where her clients are.

“We tell them to bring their own pen so they don’t have to use ours,” Goldfarb said.

But for millions of people who are likely to lose their jobs as the economy falters, wills and estate planning, which can cost several thousand dollars, aren’t a top priority, said Amy Harrington, a probate attorney in San Francisco.

“People are just paying what they consider essential,” Harrington said.

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Others are still willing to go through the process, but without leaving their homes for any reason. Regina Kiperman, a New York estate lawyer, said she’s using Zoom teleconferencing, acting as witness while her clients sign the documents remotely. Her husband, who’s also stuck at home, sometimes acts as the legally required second witness. The only hitch is that remote witnessing isn’t really legal in New York, she said.

“When the pandemic is over, if all my clients are still alive, I’ll have them come in and we’ll do it properly,” she said in a phone interview. “If they’re not, then at least I’ll have something.”

That underscores the need for legalizing electronic signatures for wills in New York, Kiperman said.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.

Before the pandemic started, New York lawmakers legalized electronic notarization, weeding out one step of the process that would have previously required in-person human contact.

But that’s not the case in California where some trust-related documents need to be notarized — and notaries are sheltering in place like everyone else.

Amir Atashi Rang, a Walnut Creek-based estate planning attorney, sent documents to the son of a client hospitalized because of the coronavirus, hoping health care providers could witness the signing.

“It’s definitely nerve-racking for us because we want our documents to be legally effective and this is the best we can do,” Rang said. “It would be helpful for the California legislature to either do away with the notary requirement and allow attested witnesses, or allow for video conferencing notarizations.”

Young health care professionals worried about dying as a result of their industry’s key role in fighting the outbreak, are also rushing to draft wills, said John O’Grady, a San Francisco-based estate planning lawyer.

“There are some people who are panicking,” O’Grady said in an interview.

“Even if they wanted to notarize, how would you do it?” O’Grady asked. “Would an older adult want a notary to come into their home? Would they want to put their life on the line to sign the document which is about planning their death? There’s some irony there.”

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