Canadians rush to prepare their wills amid ongoing COVID-19 uncertainty
Published Monday, April 13, 2020 6:34AM EDT Last Updated Monday, April 13, 2020 2:26PM EDT
TORONTO -- Nadine Parker couldn't have guessed that she'd be writing her will at the age of 32.
But four months pregnant with identical twins and married to a nurse, Parker said the growing COVID-19 pandemic has them both confronting their mortality.
The grim task of preparing for death was necessary. The talk with her husband, she said, was tough.
"It was honest, it was raw," said Parker, noting they both drafted wills.
"And it was scary at the same time too, because it's not something that you ever sit down and actually talk about with one another."
The new coronavirus that has spread rapidly throughout Canada appears to have led to a sharp demand for wills.
Erin Bury, CEO of the Toronto-based online service Willful, said her business has been busy ever since March 12 -- the day after actor Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive for coronavirus and the day after the NBA shut down.
"The first eight days of April compared to the first few days of March, it's been a 620 per cent increase in sales, and 450 per cent increase in traffic," Bury said.
This time last month, "nobody was really concerned about it, everyone was still in the mindset of, 'Oh, it's just the flu."'
The Ontario government removed one of the big barriers to writing wills last week when it issued an emergency order to allow virtual witnessing of wills and powers of attorney through online video platforms.
While other provinces offer more flexibility, Ontario's laws required in-person witnessing of both wills and powers of attorney by two people, who are neither a beneficiary nor a spouse of a beneficiary.
"That's been the biggest question that we've gotten from seniors, is: 'How can I actually get this executed?' Not just the documents created, but executed during COVID?" Bury said.
"And the best answer we had (before the emergency order) was 'Well, wear gloves and make sure you respect the six-feet rule.' Virtual witnessing ... is the biggest advancement in estate law in a long time and something that will make it a lot easier for people to get this done during COVID."
However, Ontario's Ministry of the Attorney General still needs to provide more information on how virtual witnessing can be executed, Bury said on Monday. Her company is waiting for clarity on what methods should be employed in order to ensure the documents are legally binding.
COVID-19 causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.
Sonya Northeast, a 34-year-old mom of two, is considered high risk for COVID-19 after almost dying of streptococcus pneumonia a couple of years ago.
"My illness kind of came out of the blue and I thought, 'Oh my God, what if I had actually died?' All my money would have been locked up by the government for years, there's going to be legal fees that (my family) would have had to pay out of pocket," Northeast said.
"That hit me like a nice big brick wall. I had been one of those people who put it off -- I'm not older, I didn't think about (a will). But you never know."
Northeast, who said she completed Willful's online documents in the time it took her to "finish a cup of tea," said getting her affairs in order for her kids was more reassuring than emotional.
"Just knowing they'll be taken care of just kind of puts me a little bit more at ease."
Dying without a will risks having your assets distributed according to a provincial formula, which varies across the country.
If there is no surviving parent, minor children would go to whoever applies to be the guardian -- even if it's a relative you didn't like. Pets most often end up in shelters.
It also takes longer to administer an estate and leads to guesswork and uncertainty -- and arguments -- among family members.
Willful charges between $99 and $249, which includes future updates. A traditional lawyer charges anywhere from $400 into the four figures, depending on geography and the complexity of the estate.
Parker, who is a TV producer for "ET Canada," knows her husband Curtis stands a greater risk of becoming ill as a front-line health-care provider. Up until a few months ago, Curtis was an emergency room nurse at Toronto General Hospital, but is currently working from home flagging and offering support to high-risk Sheridan College students.
"There is a very large possibility that he is going to be ending up back in emergency to help out," Parker said.
Also key is power of attorney, particularly since COVID-19 patients who are hospitalized aren't allowed visitors, and often can't express their wishes to doctors or loved ones.
"If you were to get COVID and you were on a ventilator and you weren't able to communicate, a power of attorney puts someone in charge of making medical decisions on your behalf and it really allows you to say, 'You know what? I want you to pull the plug if anything happens,' or 'No, keep me on life support if that is ever the case,"' Bury said.
"It's more important now than ever, because having the emergency plans in place means that you're basically giving someone the power to speak on your behalf, whether you're alive and unable to communicate, or you've passed away."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 13, 2020.
This is a corrected story. A previous version erroneously reported the Ontario government allows virtual signing of wills.