The COVID-19 pandemic has unquestionably changed life as we know it in Florida over the last six months. With more than 542,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and more than 8,500 deaths in Florida, attorneys specializing in estate planning are seeing a surge in new business. The pandemic has many people thinking about the future and what might happen if they face a sudden illness or death.
On March 11, 2020, Chief Justice Charles T. Canady of the Supreme Court of Florida issued an administrative order to courts across the state to review their emergency procedures and develop policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 while keeping the courts open to the fullest extent possible. Later that month, the Supreme Court went on to postpone any court proceedings that weren't emergencies. These limitations have also affected probate court proceedings.
Florida courts will gradually return to in-person service, in phases developed by the Workgroup on the Continuity of Court Operations and Proceedings. In the meantime, many courts are holding online or telephone hearings, and are still holding small, in-person meetings. In other words, the probate court's necessary work is still proceeding, albeit more slowly and carefully than in the past.
One of the biggest challenges for attorneys and their clients have been executing testamentary documents while still social distancing. Under Florida law, many document signings must have an in-person witness, including wills, trusts, and documents setting up health care surrogates and powers of attorney. While some recent Supreme Court orders have loosened some in-person notary requirements, they do not apply to testamentary documents.
A 2019 law authorized online notarization of some transactional documents like deeds and closing documents. That law went into effect on January 1, 2020. Another part of the law authorized online notarization and witnessing of wills for non-vulnerable adults as of July 1, 2020. Unfortunately, Florida law doesn't permit the judiciary or governor to suspend witness requirements for other testamentary documents.
In 2017, the legislature passed a law permitting online wills, but Governor Rick Scott vetoed it. In 2018, a similar proposal failed to pass the legislature. While the 2019 law does allow online will witnessing, the law exempts vulnerable adults and still requires retention of online signing ceremonies for evidentiary purposes. Legal observers expect the Florida legislature to address the problem in a special session this summer, but attorneys have to get creative to meet client needs until then.
At Veliz Katz Law, we work to keep our clients safe while still providing necessary services. We offer online and phone consultations and socially distant testamentary document signing. If you need help revising or developing an estate plan, we can help during this turbulent time. At Veliz Katz Law, we develop creative solutions to ensure that our clients get the help and advice they need.