How You Can Sign Estate Planning Documents in Tennessee During the Coronavirus Pandemic

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As COVID-19 continues to spread, the State of Tennessee has mandated “shelter at home” regulations in effort to keep residents safe and limit possible exposure. As our community continues to practice social distancing, people have questions about how businesses are affected by government mandates. Many Clarksville businesses have temporarily closed their doors or limited available services. Other local businesses have traded in-person contact for remote operations, utilizing teleconferencing and other online communication resources.

Legal firms are recognized as essential business; however, many Clarksville law firms have chosen to operate remotely for the safety of their clients and employees. Many legal services require in-person communication, which is problematic for practicing safe social distancing. Imagine meeting with your Clarksville estate planning attorney while maintaining the recommended six-foot distance. Obviously, this is not a practical or attractive option when trying to protect yourself and the people you love. This means legal services that are usually conducted in person may need to be altered to accommodate the current pandemic crisis.

During a state of emergency, Tennessee law authorizes the governor to temporarily suspend laws and modify business regulations. In response to the current emergency, Governor Bill Lee has issued executive orders to allow essential businesses to continue to serve the community while taking appropriate safety precautions. The purpose of these executive orders is to limit the spread of COVID-19 while making sure essential operations, such as legal services, are still available to the public.

How has the coronavirus affected signing wills and other estate planning documents in Tennessee?

If you are seeking the services of an estate planning lawyer, understand that many of the services require documents to be signed and notarized in-person. Key estate planning documents that might be impacted include trusts, wills, living wills, and durable or healthcare power of attorney. All of these legal documents require the signatory, witnesses, and notary to be physically present in order to execute the document. Recognizing the need for legal documents to be signed remotely, Governor Lee issued Executive Order 26 to temporarily suspend Tennessee requirements for in-person procedures.

What services does the new Executive Order affect?

The purpose this Executive Order is to allow residents to continue planning for their future while avoiding person-to-person contact. The executor order temporarily changes specific state laws to allow Tennesseans to:

  • Remotely sign personal documents, including wills, trusts, and power of attorney documents
  • Sign as a witness by remotely acknowledging the signature and agreement of an executor
  • Have legal documents notarized remotely, including through online communication in accordance with the modified guidelines of the Online Notary Act

How long does the executive order last?

As of now, these changes stay in effect from April 9, 2020 to May 18, 2020 unless the Governor or General Assembly change the law. It is quite possible upon the effective dissipation of this virus that the state will modify the law to allow for e-wills or take other similar measures.

What should I expect in a remote estate planning meeting?

As you prepare to meet with your attorney remotely, keep the following provisions in mind:

  • All signatures and notarizations must be done through both audio and visual communication.
  • Audio and visual must be real-time and cannot be pre-recorded.
  • The signatory, witness, and notary all must be able to hear and see each other at the same time.
  • Technology equipment must be close enough to involved parties and documents so that evidence of signing can be reviewed by the court as necessary.
  • Video conference technology can include: Skype, FaceTime, Zoom, WebEx, and any other communication technologies that allow all involved parties to see and hear one another simultaneously.
  • All three parties must be currently in the State of Tennessee for audio and visual communication.
  • The notary public must verify the identity of the signatory through government-issued identification.
  • Witnesses must verify the identity of the signatory by personal knowledge and/or government identification.

Will be remotely executed documents remain valid after the executive order is lifted?

Yes. For your remotely-signed legal documents to be valid, they must clearly have the following provision in the will itself:

“executed in compliance with Executive Order No. 26 by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, date April 9, 2020”

Without this provision in writing, the validity of your estate planning documents could be questioned in the future. The main goal of estate planning is to ensure that your valuable assets will be distributed according to your wishes. During these uncertain times, the Tennessee’s Executive Order allows you to take care of what you value now while creating a plan for the future.

How Do You Conduct a Remote Will Signing?

If you need to conduct a remote will signing with an attorney’s office, you will need to have a few things in place before you can successfully execute the documents remotely. Here is a list of what you will need:

  • Computer
  • High speed internet connection or good cell phone signal
  • Webcamera (most laptops made since 2013 have them built in)
  • Microphone (most laptops have built in microphones)
  • Drivers’ license or other government issued identification
  • Zoom, GoToMeeting, Skype, or other similar web conferencing platform

If you need help with any of these items, your estate planning attorney should be able to assist you. Once you are online and in the conference, the lawyer will be to review your documents with you and conduct the signing.

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