CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: What We Are Doing to Protect Our Clients

Articles Posted in Testamentary Capacity

Social Distancing and Signing Documents: Can a Beneficiary Act as a Witness?

During COVID-19, we have had to adapt the way we sign estate planning documents while maintaining safe social distancing. Although businesses are slowly reopening and things appear to be getting back to a sense of normal, it is still important to be cautious and keep our exposures to a minimum. One of the strategies Chepenik Trushin LLP has adjusted is to make the estate planning process entirely remote, with phone and video conferences, email communications, and sending estate planning documents through regular or electronic mail with detailed instructions for clients to sign on their own. For some clients, this has worked well, but for others, it has been a challenge to find two witnesses and a notary, which are required for many estate planning documents. A frequent question that has arisen is whether a relative or a beneficiary may serve as the witness to a will or other estate planning documents, such as a trust.

For a number of years, Florida law disfavored beneficiaries under a will from also being witnesses to the will. Under current Florida law, a will or codicil is not invalid simply because the will or codicil is signed by an interested witness. Fla. Stat. § 732.504(2). Based on the Florida statute, a beneficiary can serve as a witness to a will.

COVID 19 Pandemic: If I can’t make medical decisions for myself, who can?

On January 19, 2020, a man in his mid-thirties reported to an urgent care clinic in Snohomish County, Washington, with a persistent cough and fever. The next day, testing by the Center for Disease Control confirmed that the man had COVID 19 marking the first positive test in the United States. Since then, positive cases in the United States have ballooned to over 1,000,000 even as social distancing and quarantine measures have become the new normal.

These unprecedented circumstances raise critical questions about medical care. If you become too sick to make your own medical decisions, who gets to make them? And, to what extent can you control those decisions? In Florida, there are two basic ways you can direct medical decision-making before you become physically or mentally unable to make those decisions for yourself: (1) through the designation of a Healthcare surrogate and (2) by recording your treatment preferences in a living will.

How to Safely get Documents Notarized During a Pandemic

For the indefinite time being, social distancing and staying home are necessary safety measures. However, that does not mean the world stops. People still have needs and documents that must be notarized. There are ways to do that without leaving the house and risking exposure.

Florida Statute sections 117.201-117.305 went into effect on January 1, 2020 and allows notarization to occur remotely once a notary completes an application and training course. Usually, when getting a document notarized, the notary either confirms that they know you personally or verifies your identity by looking at government-issued identification. Now, according to Florida Statute § 117.265, via audio-video communication, a notary can do the same thing with an additional step. If the notary does not know you personally, you can remotely show your government-issued identification and then answer a few questions to confirm your identity. See Fla. Stat. § 117.265; See also Fla. Stat § 117.295. Once that is complete, the notary can watch you electronically sign the document and notarize it from his/her computer. When looking for a notary to provide this online service, look for someone that is a Remote Online Notary, also known as a “RON.” Not all notaries are qualified to perform this service remotely. The lawyers and staff at Chepenik Trushin LLP can help you through this process, keeping you and your loved one’s safe.

How Can you Prove Undue Influence?

For a Will to be valid, certain conditions must be met. The testator must have legal capacity, at least eighteen years old, must have testamentary intent, and the will must not be a product of undue influence or duress. The first two requirements are usually relatively easy issues to resolve, but undue influence and duress is not always clear. As the Supreme Court of Florida explained, “[u]ndue influence is not usually exercised openly in the presence of others, so that it may be directly proved, hence it may be proved by indirect evidence of facts and circumstances from which it may be inferred.”

In In re Estate of Carpenter, the Supreme Court of Florida listed a set of seven, non-exhaustive factors to consider when deciding cases of Undue Influence:

Avoiding Undue Influence, as an Adult Child, Assisting Parent’s Estate Planning

Writing a will is a process most people view as a terrible chore, but it is one that is necessary. The process may get further complicated when one spouse has already passed away and the adult children of the surviving elderly parent assist in managing and dividing finances. This has become more of a reality as more and more middle-aged children are caring for elderly parents. Perhaps, not surprisingly, this phenomenon is more pronounced in Florida, which according to the U.S. Census Bureau, leads the nation in terms of greatest share of its population aged 65 and older in 2010.

This scenario can lead to issues in estate planning especially if the parent is experiencing diminished mental capacity where too much of an adult child’s influence over estate planning decisions of the parent may bring legal problems such as legal charges of “undue influence.” Every state has its own undue influence laws to address these types of issues not only in the context of children’s undue influence on parents but others outside the family, such as a girlfriend or caretaker. In Florida, in order to raise a presumption of undue influence, a petitioner must show “(1) the existence of a confidential or fiduciary relationship between the decedent and the procurer of a will; (2) the active participation of the procurer in the planning and drafting of the will; and (3) the realization by the procurer of a substantial benefit under the provisions of the will.” These elements in Florida are found in common law as opposed to codified statutes so the court’s decision will be based on how convincing the evidence is in a case.

Fiduciary Exception for Attorney-Client Privilege is Extinct in Florida

If you are an attorney hired by a fiduciary, whether it be a trustee, a guardian, or a personal representative, you not only are working for the fiduciary, but you are also working for the best interests of the third party ward or beneficiary. However, can the beneficiary come forward and demand access to privileged communications between the fiduciary and the fiduciary’s attorneys? The “fiduciary exception” to the attorney-client privilege would allow beneficiaries to demand access, as long as the information is related to the normal administration issues of the trust or estate. Because the beneficiary is the intended third party beneficiary of the trust or estate, they are entitled to the information related to the trust or estate.

The original rule created confusion and uncertainty for fiduciaries and their attorneys, so Florida legislatively abolished the “fiduciary-exception” rule by adopting Fla. Stat. § 90.5021. Specifically § 90.5021(2) states that any communication between a lawyer and client acting as a fiduciary is privileged and protected to the same extent as if the client was not a fiduciary. However, there was still much litigation over this issue, and the Supreme Court of Florida on more than one occasion expressed concerns over its constitutionality. However, the Supreme Court of Florida finality resolved the issue in In re Amends. to Fla. Evidence Code, No. SC17-1005 (Fla .Jan. 25, 2018), in which it upheld the constitutionality of the statute.

Guardianship – What is it?

Answer: A court intervention to safeguard the property and personal care of an individual unable to make such decisions themselves.

A person under guardianship becomes a ward of the court.  State law establishes the process for determining an adult’s need for guardianship, which involves a finding of incapacity.

Elder abuse: the farmer population as the next potential target

Florida is a state well-known for its agriculture. In fact, within the United States, it is safe to presume that most people think that the best oranges come from Florida (we certainly think they do). Agriculture is the second most important economic activity in Florida, preceded only by tourism. Agriculture contributes $104 billion in revenue to the state and employs two million people.

According to a 2016 study by Oregon State University and Portland State University, the average age of farmers is 60 years old. Additionally, it is believed that in the next twenty years, 10 million acres of farmland are going to change ownership. Like all other people, we can expect health issues to arise as our farmers age. Studies suggest that 38% of people who are over 85 years old have dementia or some impairment in their mental faculties.

What is elder financial exploitation?

The Florida Department of Elder Affairs defines elder financial exploitation as “the illegal or improper use of another individual’s resources for personal profit or gain.”  This exploitation takes on many forms involving deception and/or coercion, including the improper use of a power of attorney.

What is a Power of Attorney (“POA”)?

Elder Abuse and Undue Influence Awareness

Did you commemorate World Elder Abuse Awareness Day? June 15, 2017 marked the twelfth annual World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, or WEAAD. Elder abuse, especially elder financial exploitation, has been called the crime of the 21st century. However, based on national surveys, elder abuse remains one of the least investigated and least addressed types of violence in national action plans. Experts predict that by the year 2025, the global population of those aged 60 years and older will more than double, from 542 million in 1995 to about 1.2 billion. As the global elderly population grows, so does the risk of financial abuse.

To raise awareness around the world and promote a better understanding of abuse of older adults, the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse and the World Health Organization at the United Nations launched WEAAD in 2006. WEAAD’s theme this year focused on preventing financial exploitation of the elderly in the context of human rights. The 2017 WEAAD also stressed the need for countries to take concrete action and develop strategies addressing financial exploitation for older adults.

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