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Document Signing During Covid-19 Crisis

As of this writing we are in the midst of a pandemic the likes of which none of us living today has ever experienced.  Historians tell us that the Spanish Flu epidemic from 1918 to 1919 comes the closest.  Government shutdown of nonessential businesses has caused widespread disruptions and affected people and businesses in different and very personal ways.

Given the nature of our practice, we are receiving calls from concerned clients and family members.  Some have loved ones in facilities but can’t visit them and are concerned about the spread of the virus there.  Others are prioritizing long term care and estate planning that they put off as they see the randomness of this all.  There have been numerous reports of one person in a household contracting the virus while others remain unaffected.

As I always explain to clients and prospects, the basic tools that we use to help clients begin with legal documents – a power of attorney, health care directive, will and often trusts.  The execution (signing) of these documents must conform to certain legal requirements.  Most often they must be signed in the presence of two witnesses and a notary public who must sign an acknowledgement and affix his/her notary stamp or seal.  (The health care directive can be signed before two witnesses or a notary public.) 

For the overwhelming majority of our clients the signings occur in our office.  On occasion we visit clients at home or in the facilities where they reside if they cannot come to us.  When Governor Murphy signed an executive order directing citizens to stay home and President Trump directed citizens to practice social distancing, we could not conduct these signings in the normal way.  As a result, we temporarily postponed signing appointments that had been scheduled already.

That was a must for the safety of our clients and employees and in compliance with the law.  But for how much longer?  As I write this President Trump has extended the social distancing requirement for another 30 days until April 30 and Governor Murphy’s order is open ended.  Medical experts believe we have not reached the peak of the pandemic yet and this could take us through the summer and beyond.

We do know, unfortunately, that the spread of Covid-19 does not mean that the need for long term care stops.  Our clients and their families still have to solve the problem of getting care for loved ones and paying for it.  Which leads me back to the issue of document signing.  We do not know how long it will take to get back to “business as usual” so we must look for an alternative so we can help clients navigate the long term care process.

Governor Cuomo has temporarily modified New York’s law to permit signing of legal documents to be done via video conferencing.  A bill has been proposed in New Jersey to allow video conferencing, but it has not yet been passed.  In its current form the new law would not be effective until 90 days from its passage which doesn’t solve the problem either. We are currently looking at other alternatives.  One possibility is “drive by signings” conducted in our parking lot.  We would be able to practice social distancing that way, however, we are still evaluating the other potential methods of disease transmission (ie. pen, paper etc.) as medical experts learn more about the virus and education us all.