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Sonoma County residents rush to create wills, trusts amid pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic is spurring Sonoma County residents to prepare for an inevitability many would otherwise rather not immediately consider ― the event of their death.

Since the start of the global health crisis, local estate planning attorneys and financial advisers say they’ve seen an influx of people seeking to write wills, buy life insurance and establish legal directives to ensure their medical wishes are respected if they fall seriously ill.

“Most of my clients, they’ve always had it on their bucket list as something they need to get done,” said Erika Copenhaver, an estate planning attorney in Santa Rosa. “But unfortunately it takes an event like COVID-19 to remind us of our mortality, and the fragility of human life in general.”

According to a recent survey by online insurance broker Policy Genius, 60% of respondents said they don’t have a will, and 1 in 4 said they’ve done no end-of-life planning of any kind. But close to 40% said they are feeling increased urgency to write a will because of the deadly pandemic.

“People know that and they’ve been putting it off, but they’re not putting it off quite so much these days,” Petaluma attorney William Fishman said.

During the pandemic, Fishman said he’s received a roughly 40% increase in inquiries about drafting wills and trusts as part of estate planning packages. These legal documents not only set forth an inheritance, but can streamline or avoid the often costly process of navigating the probate court system to determine how to distribute one’s assets and property, he said.

Sonoma County residents are buying life insurance policies to make sure their families are supported in case they die unexpectedly.

Katie Marek, 49, a special education teacher with the Marin County Office of Education who lives in Petaluma, bought a $100,000 policy in September after her district returned to in-person classes. Marek is concerned about contracting the infectious disease from her students. And she said she’s the only one capable of supporting her 21-year-old daughter, who is the beneficiary of the policy.

“It’s peace of mind knowing she would be financially bereft without a parent,” Marek said. “It felt like I really needed to provide something in case I’m not around anymore.”

On a teacher’s salary, Marek said she doesn’t have enough assets to necessitate writing a will, but she had been thinking about buying life insurance for some time. The possibility of being exposed to the virus is what finalized her decision.

“It felt like the universe was saying now is the time,” she said.

David Lawrence, senior wealth advisory at Willow Creek Wealth Management, said he’s had clients reach out to him to better understand their life insurance plans as the COVID-19 death toll continues to mount. “These sort of events do trigger conversations,” he said.

Another way people are getting their affairs in order is by drafting a power of attorney or advanced health care directive, legal documents that can empower a loved one to follow through with necessary medical or financial decisions if a person becomes incapacitated.

James Zakasky, an estate planning attorney in Santa Rosa, said that as hospitals increasingly are overwhelmed by a surge of COVID-19 patients, it’s important to file such forms with medical providers and alert a chosen legal guardian of what to do in case of a serious medical emergency or illness.

“The question comes back to whether my documents that I created with may attorney, will they be followed, or because of the circumstances will they be completely ignored?” Zakasky said.

While those making end-of-life plans tend to be older, local attorneys say, younger couples with children have also begun tending to their final affairs. Eric Gullotta, an estate planning attorney in Sonoma, said that’s likely because the pandemic has left no one’s life untouched.

“With estate planning, you kind of have to look down the barrel of life and make some tough decisions,” he said. “All you need is some spark and some headlines, and the pandemic is all that.”

You can reach Staff Writer Ethan Varian at ethan.varian@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5412. On Twitter @ethanvarian

Ethan Varian

Housing and homelessness, The Press Democrat 

I've lived in California for most of my life, and it's hard for me to remember when the state hasn't been in a housing crisis. Here in Sonoma County, sharply rising housing costs and increasing homelessness are reshaping what was long considered the Bay Area’s “affordable” region. As The Press Democrat’s housing and homelessness reporter, I aim to cover how officials, advocates, developers and residents are reacting to and experiencing the ongoing crisis.

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