From the Desk of Peggy Sanders, Elder Law Attorney and Ralph Sanders, Sanders Law Group
Seniors are especially at risk during the coronavirus pandemic. The numbers are shocking. Of the current COVID cases in Snohomish County, almost a third are over 60. Of the death rate by age, almost 90% are over 60, with the highest death rate — 48.1% — in those over 80. It’s always good to keep a positive attitude, but this is a disaster. We need to do everything we can to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
We’ve been getting too many calls informing us that a client has died. We like to think that we’re professionals and keep an emotional distance. But we’re human, we like our clients and when they die, we mourn them. It also really bothers us when we get calls about someone who is in the hospital or in quarantine and needs an estate plan or other legal help. By then, it’s too late. We can’t help.
Here are our thoughts on staying safe, and on preparing for the worst.
Follow the health guidelines. This is obvious but bears repeating because seniors are so much more at risk. Wash your hands, maintain the social distance, avoid crowded indoor spaces, wear your mask, clean surfaces. To limit social contact ourselves, we’ve taken up online grocery shopping with pickup at the local QFC. It’s easy and convenient. We also explore different restaurants for take-out on our Friday Date Nights.
Beware of scams. With emotional stress and financial fears sweeping the country, we are seeing a spike in the already widespread incidence of the exploitation of seniors, as well as fraud and outright theft. One of the latest scams involves someone who says that they are tracking persons who have come into contact with those who are diagnosed with COVID. They ask for personal information like Social Security numbers, birthdays and ZIP codes. No legitimate source is going to ask for that information via phone or email.
A good way to protect your identity is to freeze your credit report. This makes it difficult for identity thieves to open up an account in your name. A credit report freeze is free and doesn’t affect your credit score. For more details, see www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0497-credit-freeze-faqs.
Share your passwords with someone you trust. If someone dies and takes their passwords to heaven with them, it can impose an extreme hardship on those left behind. You might want to consider a password manager or vault like LastPass or 1Password.
Get your legal affairs in order now. The State of Washington still requires that estate documents to be witnessed and notarized in person. Some states are allowing this to be done virtually, but Washington still requires “wet signing.” We strongly encourage people to get their Power of Attorney (POA), which we view as your most important estate document. If something happens to you, like you have to go to the emergency room or the hospital, the person you name in your POA will be able to get information on your condition, make health care decisions for you if you can’t make them yourself, and have access to your finances if needed. Otherwise, the medical facility may not share information because of HIPAA rules, and financial institutions certainly won’t release funds.
We strongly encourage people to use an attorney when drawing up a Power of Attorney. It’s a powerful document, and an attorney can help you make the right decisions. We’ve had cases where clients wanted to name their first born and “he’s been in rehab now for 6 months,” or a husband who “is finally dealing with that gambling problem.” Then there was the case where daughter wanted $50,000 of mom’s money because “Mom wants to take the family to Disneyland.” We strongly encouraged them to rethink their choices.
Wills. Peace of mind is important, especially now. It’s satisfying to know that your family and loved ones are protected. A well-drafted will sets out your wishes and is backed up by the power of law. It preserves your hard-earned legacy, makes your transition much easier for those who care about you, and helps avoid confusion and acrimony.
Update your beneficiaries. Often overlooked. Your accounts with beneficiaries like IRAs, pensions, and life insurance policies are not governed by your will and don’t go through probate. That means that as your life changes, beneficiary designations need to be updated. We know first hand of cases where IRA or pension funds have gone to ex-spouses, or former boy or girl friends. Current spouses and boy or girl friends get really upset when this happens, and there’s nothing that can be done about it.
People put off taking care of their legal documents because of fear of facing their mortality, worry about cost, not wanting to make tough decisions, and all kinds of other reasons. We find that clients find the process much easier than they expected, and once it’s done, they are very happy that they’ve done it. Once all those documents are completed, they go on living their lives with much greater peace of mind.