As the need for elder-law services grows, some Charlottesville-area firms are finding creative ways to ensure safety amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The virus tends to be much worse for people 60 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With the elderly population at greater risk, in recent weeks more seniors in the area have sought out legal services for drafting wills and estate planning.
However, this increase in demand also creates some health and logistical challenges for which elder-law attorneys are finding creative solutions.
Doris Gelbman, owner of the Charlottesville-based Gelbman Law PLLC, has begun a process of allowing her clients to do drive-up will signings, which accommodate social distancing guidelines while also meeting the legal requirements set by the state.
Like many attorneys at this time, Gelbman has transitioned much of her work to video and phone calls, but in Virginia, a will signing must be witnessed by two competent individuals and notarized, creating a difficult situation for social distancing.
“We started thinking about how we could safely accommodate our clients, who are almost all elderly and at greater risk, and so the idea of drive-up will signings seemed like the safest move,” Gelbman said. “I would say that, uniformly, our clients have been appreciative that we’re taking these safety measures.”
Starting last Thursday, Gelbman said she and her staff donned N95 respirator masks and gloves, meeting clients in her practice’s parking lot to get the necessary documents signed, witnessed and notarized. In between clients, clipboards and other items are cleaned with soap and water, she said, and each signer receives an individually packaged pen.
“Some of my clients are scared for not only their health but the health of their loved ones, so we are taking every step we can to keep everyone healthy,” she said.
While only four clients have participated in drive-up signings so far, Gelbman said she anticipates the need will continue to grow.
The Virginia Academy of Elder Law Attorneys is seeking to relax the legal will requirements, Gelbman said, modeling its request to Gov. Ralph Northam on a Massachusetts measure that allows wills to be certified through teleconference.
While a will is important and she believes everyone over a certain age should have one, Gelbman said she also encourages people to think about powers of attorney — legal documents that give another person the power to make decisions about the property, finances or medical care of an individual.
With much uncertainty about how hospitals will handle an anticipated shortage of medical staff and equipment – namely respirators — Gelbman said having someone who can speak for an individual in case of emergency is critical.
“If you find yourself on a respirator in this situation and you don’t have someone to speak for you, then we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Gelbman said. “We need someone who is legally empowered to advocate for you.”
Simon Stapleton, principal attorney at Stapleton Elder Law, said his firm also has seen an increase in clients requesting will services. Echoing Gelbman’s sentiments, Stapleton said it is always important for people to have wills, if for no other reason than to make things easier for their family after they die.
However, Stapleton said the increase he’s seen recently is unlike anything that has come before.
“We’re getting more inquiries than ever before, which makes sense due to what’s happening,” he said. “It’s far more than the last time we saw a significant increase, during the 2008 recession.”
Loretta Vitt Dubova, an associate attorney at Vitt Law Offices, PLC, said she has not yet seen an increase in demand for elder-law services but isn’t surprised to hear that it is happening elsewhere.
“These are uncertain times and it stands to reason some older members of the community would want to have wills, which everyone should have, no matter their situation,” she said. “Vitt Law is working hard now to find ways to meet our clients needs while also ensuring their safety.”
G. Raye Jones, an estate planning attorney at MartinWren PC, said he has seen a mixed response to the pandemic in the last couple of weeks. Some of his clients who recently had health issues are trying to get wills and estate planning taken care of, while there has been little increase in need for legal services among his other clients.
“It seems that those who have recent reasons to be concerned about their health are trying to get their affairs squared away in case the worst happens,” he said. “I don’t know yet whether this will change in the coming weeks.”