Canadians concerned about the personal ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic are rushing to update their will and sign power of attorney documents, an important step for millions who have no such plans in place, experts say.
Amid ongoing calls to stay home and practice physical distancing, online services designed to help with estate planning are seeing a surge in business.
Willful, a Toronto-based company whose online platform allows you to create a will in as little as 20 minutes, has seen its sales and website traffic double since March 16, when the spread of the novel coronavirus picked up in Canada.
With sales up 700 per cent from the same period last year, CEO Erin Bury says COVID-19 has forced many Canadians to take stock of their legal standing, leaving many to realize how out of date their documents are.
“We're hearing from a lot of people that have a will sitting in their filing cabinet that they created in 1989,” Bury told CTVNews.ca by phone Thursday.
“They've since gotten married and divorced, had other children, they have assets that weren't accounted for, pets that weren’t accounted for… and those are the people who should be thinking about updating their will.”
An Angus Reid survey from January 2018, the most recent data on the topic, revealed that 51 per cent of Canadians had no last will or testament. Of those who did have a will in place, 35 per cent admitted to it being out of date.
The majority of Canadians interviewed said they hadn’t taken the time to create a will because they felt they were too young.
Another eight per cent said that the main reason they don’t have a will is that they “don’t want to think about dying,” -- an attitude experts believe is shifting due to growing anxiety over the coronavirus outbreak.
“Any Canadian should be thinking about getting these things in place. Pandemic or no pandemic,” Bury cautioned.
But creating or updating a will when heeding instructions to stay home and self-isolate presents new challenges. After all, multiple witnesses and signatures are required to make a will legal.
“This has really highlighted the need for advancements in estate law to support not only digital signature, but also virtual witnessing,” Bury explained.
“Right now, you have to print and sign your will. You have to have two witnesses who are in the same room as you or in the same vicinity of you who also sign those well. And that's really prohibitive with COVID.”
A petition calling for amendments to Ontario's Succession Law Reform Act to allow virtual witnessing of wills in light of the pandemic, started by Willful partner NoticeConnect, has already garnered over 1,000 signatures.
Others are finding creative solutions to adhere to physical distancing measures while helping clients find peace of mind during the outbreak.
“I have some lawyers that I work with who have a tent set up [outside their home], with a large table and very strict instructions. This is where the witnesses come, this is where you sign everything, they need to bring own pens, everything is disinfected,” Robyn Thompson, certified financial planner, told CTVNews.ca by phone Thursday.
“If there's a position where people feel like they can't wait, they're willing to take those measures.”
Canadian law requires that, in order to be legally-binding, will and power of attorney documents must be physically printed and stored offline. They must be signed in the presence of two witnesses who are also required to sign the document.
Digital signatures are not legally valid.
Another option is a holographic will -- a hand written document that only requires your own signature. However, experts warn against this practice, noting that without help from legal counsel you may not communicate your wishes clearly.
Online services like Willful and LegalWills.ca allow you to create customized legal documents, including wills and powers of attorney, from the comfort of your own home, with input and plans designed from estate lawyers. However, you’re still required to print and sign your documents to make them legal.
With many Canadians feeling the financial strain of the pandemic, these services often offer a less expensive alternative to estate planning, which can run anywhere from several hundred dollars to thousands, depending on the complexity of your estate.
For those who are in urgent need of legal support due to concerns regarding COVID-19, Thompson recommends getting in touch with the Canadian Bar Association, which is keeping track of developments in the legal system as the situation in Canada develops.
WHO NEEDS TO HAVE A WILL OR POWER OF ATTORNEY?
If you are an adult with any sort of assets or dependants -- and that includes your pets -- you should have a will in place.
Thompson notes that having a will ensures your assets are divided appropriately, that your children or pets have been assigned legal guardians, and that you have designated someone to advocate for you when it comes to your health and finances, should you be unable to, through powers of attorney.
The financial planner says your will is in need of updating if you have had any life changing events since creating it, such as getting married or having children. She recommends taking the extra time in isolation to check on your investments and life insurance to make sure your beneficiaries are up to date and accurate.
The unprecedented risks associated with COVID-19 have highlighted the importance of estate planning for front-line workers, according to Bury, who says Willful has been inundated with questions from health-care workers and first responders.
“We're seeing a lot of doctors and hospital administrators call for health-care workers to get these documents in place,” she said.
This week, Willful announced it would give away 1,000 wills and power of attorney documents to front-line healthcare workers in Canada in support of their efforts.
For those who are working on updating or creating their will, Bury recommends seeking out witnesses who are in your household, or who you will be seeing during physical distancing. However, she notes your witness can’t be anyone who benefits from your will.
If you don’t have access to a printer, Willful suggests asking a family member or your executor to print the document and leave it at your door if you’re comfortable sharing the file with them.
The company is also offering to print and ship will and power of attorney documents free of charge with the use of their platform during COVID-19.