The lawyers at Kahane Law Office in Calgary have been making house calls in recent days. They’ve been driving wills and powers of attorney (POAs) over to clients who are afraid to come into the firm’s offices for fear of catching COVID-19. They’re also doing more business over the phone.
“A lot of people are social distancing,” says Jenna Bever, an associate lawyer with the firm who specializes in wills and estates. “We drive out to help them sign their wills. People are glad to be getting this done.”
Law firms across Canada say that there’s been a surge in interest in reviewing wills and POAs since the outbreak began. Many lawyers are hearing from clients in their 60s and 70s who want to ensure their end-of-life wishes are still relevant, or from children of elderly parents who want to locate their parents’ documents.
Attorneys are also warning younger clients to ensure they have POAs set up to ensure guardianship of their kids should something happen.
“Older people are the most anxious,” says David Altro, managing partner at Altro LLP in Toronto. “We’ve gotten a lot of calls. People are stressed.”
Mr. Altro says his colleagues have been reading a lot of documents to concerned clients over the phone, to ensure their wills – some of them drafted 10 or 20 years ago – are still accurate and reflect their current situation.
In cases where there are small changes to the will, he says, codicils can be added, and then signed by the client and two witnesses. Larger changes may require redrafting the will.
Mr. Altro says he’s also getting calls from children of elderly parents seeking information on their parents’ wills – questions he cannot answer due to attorney-client privilege. In those cases, Mr. Alto asks callers to have their parents call in themselves.
Mary Collins, 60, has been on the phone since this past Monday trying to get a lawyer to call her back. The growing number of cases of coronavirus have her worried and she’s keen to get a will drafted.
“I know I should have taken care of this a long time ago – and suddenly here we are,” says Ms. Collins, who lives in Toronto’s east end. “Like everyone, I’m concerned with what’s going on. We are hearing that things are happening, and people are getting incapacitated very quickly.”
Ed Olkovich, a Toronto-based estate lawyer, says many people have woken up to the reality that they need to find their wills and POAs – and quickly.
“Now’s the time to look for the documents and ensure you have the originals,” he says, adding that only originals can be probated. “Sometimes, lawyers hold on to the originals.”
Mr. Olkovich says in cases where a lawyer has retired, a provincial law society, such as the Law Society of Ontario, will have records of who is holding that will. Once in hand, letting executors and children know where the will is located is also critical. “And tell them who prepared the documents,” he says.
Next, a review of the will is warranted to allow for changes. If an executor is elderly or ailing, it might be wise to choose someone younger, says Mr. Olkovich.
He says a review should also include all assets, such as RRSPs, RRIFs and TFSAs. For example, if an RRSP was left to someone in the original will and the plan has since been converted to a RRIF, the language in the will needs to be changed to reflect that.
Andrew King, a sole practitioner with King & King Barristers and Solicitors in Toronto, says that POAs, which appoint people to look after your affairs while you’re alive but incapacitated, should also be reviewed.
Different provinces have different requirements. In Ontario, there are two types of POA – one governs property and finances, and the other personal care.
The property POA names a person who will manage your assets. The personal care POA names a person who will make decisions about your healthcare, such as a do-not-resuscitate order, and stipulates what kind of treatment you’d like at the end of your life.
Drafting or updating POAs can ease the burden for your family. “It can make it a lot easier for your family to make those decisions,” Mr. King says.
Mr. Altro says personal care POAs are critical for couples in their 30s and 40s who have young children. In the event both parents die, a POA can list a guardian for the children. If a guardian is not named, a court will appoint one.
While experts recommend drafting a will with a lawyer to ensure clarity, wills drafted with an online service can be an option in an emergency. Many of those services allow clients to create and amend wills for up to 10 years. Mr. Altro says these are fine for those individuals with few assets, but less than ideal in cases where a person has several beneficiaries or many assets to distribute.
Mr. Olkovich believes people need to review their wills. “There’s a reluctance to talk about death,” he says. “But it’s your responsibility to figure this out.”
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