How the Pandemic Has Changed Probate in Tennessee

How the Pandemic Has Changed Probate in Tennessee Too many people have tragically died across the country and in Tennessee due to the pandemic. COVID-19 is creating numerous challenges for an overloaded healthcare system as it tries to help coronavirus patients and other individuals, such as cancer and heart patients, waiting for an ICU bed. Some of those who fell ill and passed away during this time may not have written a will, which means their property is governed by the intestate laws of Tennessee.

Over the past year, Americans of all ages are, wisely, beginning to consider and draft wills – however, many are doing so without consulting with experienced wills and trust lawyers. Some of these wills are likely to be invalid. Many self-made wills fail to achieve the wishes of the decedent. The pandemic has also affected both the ability of Maryville residents to meet with their lawyers and the ability of probate courts to hear disputes, as remote court sessions are safer but may be less effective than in-person hearings.

How has the pandemic has affected mortality rates in Tennessee?

According to USA Facts, COVID has taken a large toll on Tennessee residents. Since the start of the pandemic, there have been 1,115,345 reported cases and 13,804 deaths in Tennessee. As of September 8, 2021, there were 5,422 reported cases and 41 reported deaths. The seven-day average for the prior week in Blount County was 150 cases and, fortunately, no deaths. Since the start of the pandemic, Blount County has had more than 20,000 cases and 216 deaths.

The CDC Tracker (for September 8, 2021) states that in Blount County the rate of new delta variant cases is high – 830 for every 100,000 people over the seven days from September 1 to September 7, 2021. The vaccination rate (at least one dose) is 58.8% for adults. That contrasts with Montgomery County, Maryland, where the rate of cases over the same seven-day period is 87 for every 100,000 people. Their vaccination rate (at least one dose) is 96% for adults.

What are the benefits of having a will?

There are many advantages to having a valid will. As the person who creates the will (called the testator), you can:

  • Appoint a guardian for their minor children. The guardian raises your children, provides them with love and guidance, and also manages their financial needs.
  • Appoint a personal representative (an executor). The executor is the person who manages your estate. The executor probates your will, identifies the assets of your estate, opens up an estate checking account, collects the assets, pays the necessary bills, and distributes the assets.
  • Choose exactly which people you want to have your assets and in what amounts. While you may want your assets to go to your spouse and children, you may also want to give some of your assets to your church or school. You may want to give some to your parents, siblings, or nieces and nephews. You may want to give some of your estate to someone who was kind to you. If a child has special health needs, you may want to create a trust for that child or give that child the bulk of your estate.

If you do not have a will, then the intestate laws of Tennessee determine who inherits your estate. Generally, intestate laws provide that all of your estate is distributed to your spouse and children. If you have neither a spouse nor children, your estate passes to your parents, grandchildren, or siblings, depending on your family relationships at the time of your death.

Someone on your behalf will need approval to be your personal representative. The same or a different person may need approval to become the guardian of your child. If nobody requests or is available to be appointed guardian, your children may become wards of the state.

There are a few documents that you should prepare now, if you haven’t already, that can be very important if you become infected with COVID-19. A durable power of attorney appoints someone to handle your financial affairs, and a healthcare directive appoints someone to make healthcare decisions if you become ill. Living wills direct physicians about end-of-life medical care.

Why might a will be invalid?

There are specific requirements for writing a will in Tennessee. For example, wills need to be in writing and not a verbal agreement. Only adults can make wills. Wills can be challenged if:

  • The will was made through the undue influence of someone who receives an unnatural distribution
  • The testator lacked testamentary capacity – the ability to know his/her estate and the people who would normally be entitled to the estate
  • There is a codicil (amendment to the will) or another will
  • The will was not formalized; for example, Tennessee wills usually need to have witnesses

The witness requirement was modified due to the pandemic. Executive Order 26 provides that wills can, during the pandemic, be witnessed remotely as long as the testator and witnesses can see and hear each other simultaneously. Zoom, Skype, and Facetime are some of the approved videoconference technologies. There are additional requirements, such as that the testator, witnesses, and notary public (who verifies the testator’s signature) must all be located in Tennessee. Notary public signatures are not required for most standard wills, but they are required for self-proving wills.

How is the pandemic affecting meetings with lawyers and court hearings?

Many clients are meeting with their estate planning and probate lawyers through alternate technologies as much as is practically possible. Various courts have specific probate hearing and probate filing requirements during the pandemic. Your Maryville probate lawyer can explain:

  • When telecommuting conferences are acceptable and when you must appear in person
  • The vaccination and mask requirements for appearing in the Blount County probate court
  • Any other probate requirements due to the pandemic

At Shepherd & Long PC, our Maryville probate lawyers understand the difficulties, frustrations, and tragedies from the pandemic. We are working to comply with safety protocols while also offering you the strong advocacy you deserve when you lose a loved one, with or without a will. Whether you are an executor, an heir, or a family member, we are ready to help honor your loved one’s wishes during these trying times. To discuss probate rights, your rights to manage a loved one’s estate , or your right to contest a will, please call us at  865-982-8060 or fill out our contact form to schedule a consultation.