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The coronavirus pandemic undoubtedly has you on edge. We’ve all been forced to face our fears in some way, whether it’s the fear of falling ill, losing a job or having to spend time alone.
With all these anxieties and unknowns weighing on your mind, it might feel like there’s suddenly a pressing need to get your affairs in order ― just in case.
According to Andrew Simpson, the national head of wills and estate planning at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, there’s been a significant spike in wills enquiries from “age brackets across the board” during the COVID-19 crisis.
“You would think that it would be something that would prompt older people to think about their wills... we’ve been surprised at the number of younger people who have actually made enquiries with us to prepare wills,” Simpson told HuffPost Australia.
“Our data shows us that actually the demand from the 24- to 35-year-old bracket has been strong.”
Social distancing rules have posed issues in terms of lawyers and public trustees having initial face-to-face meetings with clients, as well as witnesses being able to sign the documents in person.
Here’s what you need to think about when putting a will together and how to navigate the process, particularly during this time of self-isolation.
What You Need To Think About When Drawing Up A Will
What Does My Will Cover?
The first thing to consider is what you can actually give away. Make a list of assets you own, and don’t forget items of sentimental value as well, such as watches, jewellery, plate collections, etc.
“Some people think that they can give away their half interest in the family home even though they own it jointly with someone else. You might not be able to do that because if you die first, the survivor owns it automatically,” said Simpson.
It’s best to get your list together before meeting with your lawyer.
Deal With Superannuation
Though it’s easy to think you can give away your superannuation, it’s not that simple. Your superannuation isn’t actually owned by you, so you need to go to your super fund and prepare a nomination of beneficiary as part of the process.
According to the Australian government’s Money Smart website, “A binding nomination directs who your super fund trustee gives your super benefit to when you die. If you don’t nominate someone, the super fund trustee will decide who your money goes to”.
Appoint A Power Of Attorney
“A power of attorney is a document where you give someone else the legal right to look after your affairs for you,” states the same government website.
There are three types: general power of attorney, enduring power of attorney and medical power of attorney. More information on this is available here.
Appoint Someone To Be The Executor Of Your Estate
“You need somebody that you trust who’s prepared to administer your will when you’re gone,” said Simpson.
“That person organises your funeral, works out what your assets are, works out what your liabilities are, and makes sure the people referred to in the will get what they’re entitled to.”
How To ‘Meet’ With A Lawyer/Public Trustee During COVID-19
“Generally, when you write a will for somebody, you want to meet them face-to-face to get their personal and financial history, get their instructions about what they want to do with their estate,” said Simpson.
“The problem with the social isolation issues has been we haven’t been able to convene those meetings face-to-face, so we’ve had to find alternative ways of doing it.”
Given strict social-distancing measures, many people have resorted to video conferencing calls with their lawyers.
How To Get A Will Witnessed During COVID-19
Getting witnesses to sign the will is the more “challenging” aspect, and, according to Simpson, the rules are different across each state and territory in Australia.
“In like Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia or the Australian Capital Territory, anybody can be a witness even if they’re related to you,” he explained.
“So if you’ve got a husband and wife who want to sign wills, they can witness each other’s, and they can get an adult child to be a witness. So it’s not ideal, but in those jurisdictions where a beneficiary can also be a witness, we’ve managed to get around it in that way.”
However, in New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland and Northern Territory, it’s been “really tricky”.
“They have a rule that says that a beneficiary who’s also a witness loses their entitlement,” he said, explaining it’s then difficult to rely on a household member who is referred to in the will.
“What we’ve encouraged people to do is if you’re leaving the home for one of the allowable exemptions, like going to the doctor or do your shopping, you can make arrangements to sign your will in those scenarios. That might be a possibility.”
From May 1, NSW will allow two adults to visit another household.
“That’s a fantastic change provided those two people aren’t referred to in the will,” said Simpson. “It means you can have two people come into your home to witness your will.”
He said legislation has also been adapted to the pandemic in NSW, which allows for witnessing via video conferencing. This is under the Electronics Transactions Amendment (COVID-19 Witnessing of Documents) Regulation 2020.
“What that basically means is that you can watch somebody sign a will via video conferencing application and, provided you’re actually watching them sign when they sign and it’s not a recording, you can then, as a witness, witness a second copy of it, and that is then a valid will.
“In Queensland, it’s slightly different, but what it means is that if a will hasn’t been signed in front of two witnesses, then you can actually make a statement saying the reason that didn’t occur was because of COVID-19. Then the court can actually prove that will as valid after death in those circumstances.”
With additional reporting by Casey Bond for HuffPost US.