Planning and Administrating Estates During The Time of COVID-19: Virtual Execution of Documents.

The current crisis has posed specific problems as it relates to the execution of new estate planning documents. Unlike in other areas of transactional law, the execution of documents which will ultimately be filed with the New York Surrogate’s Court require adherence to a series of formalities not required of other legal documents. Specifically, with regard to last will and testaments and other estate planning documents, there is a requirement for such documents to be witnessed by two or more persons at the time the signatory of the document is executed. The current restrictions on public gatherings made this requirement seemingly impossible until there was an easing or lifting of the restrictions.

Fortunately, over the last month, Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued a pair of executive orders which allow for the virtual execution and witnessing of certain legal documents including wills and other estate planning documents. The executive order can be found here:

https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/no-20214-continuing-temporary-suspension-and-modification-laws-relating-disaster-emergency?fbclid=IwAR3ukaFetCzvov8fgAB8IQM88OWp60gRf_2KX918BKOsRvwYmeIJGYVTq8g

Specifically, in order to utilize virtual execution and witnessing of documents, the following is required, namely:

  • If the person executing the documents is not known to the witnesses, they must present identification at the time of the virtual meeting;
  • The individual, witnesses and any supervising attorney must be able to verbally interact in real time during the execution of the documents;
  • The witnesses must receive an electronic copy of the signed document on the same date it was executed and may then sign where needed and transmit the witnessed document back to the individual; and
  • The witnesses may repeat the witnessing of the documents upon receipt of the electronically executed and witnessed documents within thirty (30) days of the execution of those documents.

This executive order follows a previous order which allows notary publics to take virtual acknowledgment of a signatory’s signature.   Collectively, these two orders remove physical separation and the current stay-at-home orders as barrier to current execution of documents. This is especially important for persons who become sick and need documents executed in a timely manner.

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