(Deposit photos)

For estate planning attorneys, 2020 was a year unlike any they have ever seen, from meeting with clients at card tables set up outside of offices to fielding a significant uptick of requests from people who want to get their affairs in order.

COVID-19 brought an unprecedented sense of urgency in estate planning, South Carolina estate planning attorneys say. The one-two punch of reading the harrowing headlines generated by the pandemic while being stuck at home gave many people plenty of time to ponder their own mortality. In many cases, estate planning attorneys are hearing from people who had initial consultations years ago and now actually want to go through with the process.

“Not only are they concerned about COVID and dying, they don’t have anything else to do,” said Anne Kelly Russell, an attorney with Womble Bond Dickinson in Charleston. “Now they are thinking about estate planning. I hope I’m not the errand people have to run when they have nothing else to do right now.”

Estate planning is much more than an errand, and involves complicated issues. Personal bonds are the foundation of any client-attorney relationship, and that’s especially true for estate planning attorneys who now can now spend only minimal in-person time with clients. But some of those most in need of estate planning, like the elderly, are also the most at risk for complications from COVID-19, so hours-long meetings in plush offices or conference rooms are now replaced by short, socially-distanced meetings or teleconferencing.

While technology allows for virtual conferencing and emailing documents between attorneys and clients, one of an estate attorney’s most important duties is making sure that their client is of sound mind. The need to see clients in person to make sure there is no undue influence and to confirm that the client has the capacity to sign is thus still crucial for estate planners.

Attorneys say there is no way to tell if someone is standing just outside of the webcam’s frame who might be directing them to sign something they don’t want to or to as effectively make sure that the documents are being signed and initiated thoroughly and correctly. Melody Breeden, an attorney with Turner Padget in Myrtle Beach, makes sure that her clients are in front of her—masks on and socially distanced, of course—when they sign the papers that cement their wishes for their estates.

“I insist that it has to be in person,” Breeden said. “There is no way to completely assess someone’s capacity virtually.”

Clients also vary tremendously in their own degrees of comfort with videoconferencing technology. Some seniors don’t even own a computer, while others are quite tech-savvy. Jessica Wentworth Grassi of Mt. Pleasant said that she has met via Zoom with church groups to guide them through the planning process.

That sort of thinking outside the box has been essential in the current conditions. Pre-COVID, Grassi would often meet with clients in her office for hours. Now, they sit on folding chairs in her office’s lobby and sign documents with disposable pens that clients take home. Breeden meets with clients at card tables in her office’s parking lot, and Russell has gone by clients’ homes to do “drive-by” signings.

There’s one place where a little more technology would be undeniably helpful: once the documents are signed, South Carolina doesn’t have a statewide estate and probate electronic filing system, so there’s now a large and growing backlog of families of the recently deceased waiting for matters to get sorted. Charleston County recently started a pilot program that does allow electronic filing of such documents and it is expected to eventually cover the entire state, although it’s unclear how long that will take.

With so many people needing estate planning help now, Breeden said that attorneys are most willing to do so, but need to be mindful of not rushing things.

“Some people are so eager to help that they might be inclined to throw out some of their normal practices and processes,” Breeden said. “It is important to attorneys to be mindful of not rushing the estate planning process.”

Overall, attorneys say that while this year has been a challenge for estate planning, they’re heartened that people are now taking care of uncomfortable matters and having conversations with their families that they haven’t had before.

“There have been significant hurdles but you realize that people are flexible and you’re going to figure it out day by day,” Russell said. “This is our time to think outside the box on how to stay creative and understand our clients’ needs.”