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Updated: April 17, 2020

During COVID-19, some Maine lawyers are writing more wills

Portraits of attorneys Molly Liddell and Adam Swanson Photos / Courtesy Pierce Atwood and Swanson PA Maine attorneys including Molly Liddell, left, of Pierce Atwood in Portland, and Adam Swanson, of Swanson PA in Presque Isle, have been seeing an uptick lately from clients seeking help with wills.

In Presque Isle, where Adam Swanson is a general practitioner and principal attorney at the four-person Swanson Law PA, his caseload normally revolves around civil litigation, personal injury, contract disputes and criminal defense.

As his firm works to keep up that usual stream of client work, Swanson said he's getting more requests than normal from people seeking help writing wills.

"We probably have gotten more queries than I'm used to seeing, but it's been manageable," he told Mainebiz earlier this week. 

That morning, for example, Swanson said he had received an email from someone wanting a probate-related document signed. That followed a video consultation with another individual last week on the same topic, and a meeting in the office with a client who had come in to sign paperwork.

"To get three or four requests like that in a week is a lot," he said. "It's not the primary focus of my practice, but I'm there to help folks."

Pandemic-prompted mortality thoughts 

Other lawyers are seeing a similar bump in the wills and estate business, as more people seek to get their affairs in order during COVID-19.

"I do think folks have been thinking about their health and mortality a bit more and are moving their estate planning up on their priority list," said Murray, Murray & Plumb partner Elizabeth Hunt, who chairs the Portland firm's estate planning, probate and trust administration practice group.

She said her firm has seen an uptick in estate planning inquiries, though not to the extent of being overwhelming.

She's also letting clients know about the option to get wills and other legal documents notarized remotely, under an order signed by Gov. Janet Mills on April 8, though she has not yet made use of it herself.

The order requires the observation of some fairly burdensome procedural safeguards for remote witnessing and notarizations, she noted.

"I am not suggesting that this is a bad thing but, thus far, my clients have been choosing to wait to execute their documents until such time as a personal meeting is possible," she said. "If they were to become sick, then I think they would change their minds about that decision."

Pierce Atwood partner Molly Liddell, who chairs the Portland firm's trusts and estates practice group, also thinks it could be useful to execute documents remotely.

Liddell said she's getting calls these days from people wanting to update or make changes to their wills, as well as from new clients wanting to draft one for the first time.

"We're thinking and talking about our own mortality in a different way, and there's something very compelling about controlling some things," she said. "There are a lot of people who start the process and then fall off at one point or another ... It's times like these that people are prompted to make a decision."

Sometimes meeting clients for the first time via Zoom, she finds connecting with people from their respective homes can make the process easier, and "cuts right to the human part of it all."

"They're planning for their kids, and their kids are running in the background," she added.

'Peace of mind'

Liddell's advice to anyone thinking of writing a will but daunted by the process is to find an attorney who's the right fit.

Once a will is done, she recommends a review about every five to seven years or any major life event, like a change in marital status or the birth of a child, and to always know where one's documents are.

As a lawyer she finds the work rewarding, recalling a client she recently advised whose family was healthy and expressed deep gratitude for the legal counsel.

"That showed me how impactful that peace of mind part of planning is for people," she said. "It was nice."

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