Essential Documents Clients Must Update During COVID-19

Written by: By Samiha Khanna

CPAs have been especially busy in recent weeks counseling clients through the sudden economic challenges brought on by COVID-19.

Because you’ll be communicating with a large number of your clients, this can be a timely opportunity to also remind them to update essential documents, such as living wills and power of attorney designations.

During this time, many firms have increased their communication to clients with phone calls, webinars, emails, and more, said Lisa Featherngill, CPA/PFS, head of legacy and wealth planning at Abbot Downing in Winston-Salem, N.C. In these communications, CPAs can add a reminder to clients to check their documents and make sure they’re in a place that’s secure but easy to access by trusted individuals, she said.

“People have been hit so hard with all of the media attention on this, I think that that they are aware of the urgency,” Featherngill said. “And so you just want to be continually reminding them through calls or emails, and just repeating that message.”

Discussing worst-case scenarios with clients may be especially challenging during this time of heightened anxiety, but it’s essential, said attorney Martin M. Shenkman, CPA/PFS, J.D., who specializes in tax and estate planning.

“Many clients are in fact uncomfortable, scared for their health and the health of their loved ones, scared about their financial security and more,” said Shenkman, who is based in New Jersey. This discomfort may prevent them from bringing up wills and other estate planning documents on their own, or with their attorneys, so CPAs will need to be proactive and sensitively remind them of the need to keep such documents current.

“It’s really in the hands of the CPA financial planner to bring these issues up and encourage the client when appropriate, to return to their attorney to discuss updating documents,” he said.

Shenkman recommends planners discuss these essential documents with their clients:

  • A will, which, in addition to distributing assets, should name a guardian for any children under 18 and an administrator for the client’s estate;

  • A durable power of attorney for financial matters, which names an agent to handle legal matters related to the client’s finances, including their taxes;
  • Beneficiary designations for assets such as retirement accounts (many of which will need to be updated given the passage of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, P.L. 116-94);
  • A living will that includes health care wishes, such as religious considerations during medical care and instructions on end-of-life care; these documents go by different names, including medical directives and advance health care directives;
  • A health care proxy, which authorizes another person to make medical decisions if the client is unable to; and
  • A HIPAA release that permits another person, such as the named health care proxy and/or family members, to talk with medical providers about the client’s medical history and treatment.

Although all of these documents are important to keep current, some updates are extremely urgent, Shenkman said, such as updating medical instructions and a power of attorney in the event a major illness such as COVID-19 occurs, and checking fiduciaries to remove the names of any people the client no longer speaks to or no longer trusts, or who are deceased.

Clients may originally have signed documents that have to do with health care without paying much attention to the details those documents contained, said Shenkman. “Those nuances could be critical in the current environment,” he observed.

For instance, an urgent consideration for clients related specifically to COVID-19 is whether they have signed a “do-not-resuscitate” (DNR) order and how that might interfere with their care if they contract COVID-19, Featherngill said.

In some states, DNR orders mean that a person should not be intubated, which would prohibit the use of a ventilator, Featherngill said. Clients should be advised of this detail “just to make sure that you don’t create a situation where the doctors would be precluded from using something as simple as a ventilator should you come down with COVID-19,” she said.

Clients may also want to update documents to allow for remote decision-making. Most health care proxies and financial powers of attorney contemplate the agent being present to make and communicate decisions, said Shenkman. But that may not be feasible in a COVID-19 environment. So updating documents to permit communications of decisions by Skype, Zoom, and electronic signatures may be important. Some states have temporarily allowed attorneys and clients to sign documents electronically, so depending on the location, arrangements can be made, Shenkman said.

Making sure clients have essential documents in order is a good reason to connect, Featherngill said. But planners don’t necessarily need an excuse to check in with their clients.

“This has actually been a good opportunity to get to know clients on a more personal level,” Featherngill said. “We’re starting the conversation most times asking, ‘How are you? How is your family?,’ and right now the answer may be different. It really is an opportunity to check in with clients and see how they’re doing — not just necessarily solving a financial or tax issue.”

For more news and reporting on the coronavirus and how CPAs can handle challenges related to the outbreak, visit the JofA’s coronavirus resources page. Listen to Martin Shenkman’s podcast on essential estate planning documents and other estate planning considerations during the pandemic, courtesy of the PFP Section.

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Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.