One of the largest legal firms in the Gold Coast and Tweed Shire has been inundated with enquiries and requests for Wills and Enduring Powers of Attorney to be done urgently. Angela Harry, the Wills and Estates Partner of Attwood Marshall Lawyers, said that the firm’s estate planning lawyers have been run off their feet with back to back appointments and are working long hours drafting Wills and Enduring Powers of Attorney for anxious clients.
Mrs Harry said that the recent changes to the movement of residents between Queensland and New South Wales, as well as the increased shutdowns, have made the logistics of seeing clients more difficult as well as increasing the risk of staff possibly contracting the virus from the face to face meetings that are necessary to sign the documents.
The firm has introduced strict requirements in relation to vetting clients who attend the offices for appointments and impose the usual sanitation and social distancing requirements.
Border closure issue solved by Coolangatta/Kingscliff offices
In relation to the border closures, Attwood Marshall Lawyers has offices in The Strand Shopping Centre in Coolangatta, Robina Town Centre in QLD and the Kingscliff Professional Centre in NSW. This allows residents of both states to attend any of their 3 offices without breaching any of the border crossing issues. There have been lengthy delays and vehicle queues with the border checkpoints and this is expected to worsen with stricter border measures being introduced by the QLD government. This has caused logistical difficulties for many residents from both states, but the convenient availability of the cross-border offices has enabled the firm to deal with the restrictions and continue to provide their usual legal services.
Strict requirements for legalities of Wills/Powers of Attorney
Mrs Harry said that obtaining instructions from clients in relation to preparing a Will and Enduring Powers of Attorney was a very serious matter and that there are strict requirements in relation to establishing that the person giving the instructions has sufficient mental capacity and is not being unduly influenced by any family members or third parties. There are also strict requirements in relation to taking proper instructions concerning the assets and family situation of each client which is relevant in any subsequent challenge to the Will or the estate by someone bringing a claim. Accordingly, it is very difficult to take those instructions by telephone or even on Skype or video conferencing. However, the COVID-19 crisis has meant that we have had to do our best to abide by all of the relevant legal requirements and deal with the extraordinary issues imposed by the shutdowns and spread of the virus.
Mrs Harry said that the firm’s Wills and Estates Department (which has 17 lawyers, paralegals and graduates) have been working very hard to cope with the increased demand and still attend to their normal file loads. “Luckily, we have one of the largest Wills & Estate Departments in Australia and the location of our offices in both states has made the logistics of attending and signing much easier for our clients.”
Mrs Harry said that all of the legal staff who are physically seeing our clients are to be commended for putting themselves at risk and making sure that the client’s wishes are carried out. We have a lot of anxious clients very concerned by the onset of the coronavirus, particularly our elderly clients. We have a large number of local clients and families and it is very important that we recognise the impact of the virus and do our best to help our clients and put their minds at ease.
Some staff were working remotely from home, but the majority of the Wills and Estates Department were required to be physically in the office in order to see clients and have their Wills signed and witnessed.
Witnessing requirements of Wills/EPOA’S etc.
Unfortunately, Wills, Enduring Powers of Attorney, Appointments of Enduring Guardian and Advance Health Directives all need to be signed as original paper documents and witnessed by authorised people. In the case of Wills, there must be 2 adult witnesses and the Will maker and the witnesses should execute the document with the same pen and be physically present while the Will is signed and until it is properly completed.
Enduring Powers of Attorney and Appointments of Enduring Guardian in New South Wales are required to be witnessed by a legal practitioner or registrar of the local Court and Enduring Powers of Attorney in Queensland must be witnessed by a Justice of the Peace, Commissioner for Declarations or legal practitioner. The problem is that most services from Justices of the Peace and Commissioners for Declarations are not available and have been shut down. This means that in the majority of cases, there is no other way to legally execute these documents other than in the presence of an estate planning lawyer. Once again, luckily we have the staff to satisfy these conditions at our 3 offices on the Gold Coast and Tweed.
Other legal areas of the firm tested with enquiries
Attwood Marshall Lawyers Legal Practice Director Jeff Garrett said that other areas of the law firm had also been tested with the number of enquiries and requests for advice. Have a listen to the podcast of Mr Garrett’s interview with 4CRB on Friday March 27, 2020, in the link below.
Impact on Commercial Leases and Agreements
Mr Garrett said that the Property and Commercial Department while seeing a drop in the number of properties being bought and sold had also been busy fielding enquiries concerning commercial leases and agreements that have been effectively made redundant due to the impact of the coronavirus.
“Our Commercial Litigation and Property and Commercial Departments have been very busy fielding these enquiries from equally anxious clients. With the regular changes to the overall circumstances of the impact of the virus, it is something that is changing everyday and it is difficult to predict where it may all end up,” he said.
Superannuation TPD Claims & Income Protection Policies
Our Personal Injuries Department has also been very busy dealing with enquiries from clients who have contracted the virus and have lodged claims with their insurance companies or superannuation Total and Permanent Disability (TPD) claims and income protection policies. There are many policies which include exemptions or exclusion clauses in relation to “pandemics” and sometimes the devil is in the detail of the individual policies. Mr Garrett said that although some insurers have announced they will not enforce exclusions for Covid-19, people who are affected by this should get urgent legal advice in relation to their rights and, once again, the firm is well placed to field these enquiries with one of the largest and most experienced Personal Injury Departments on the Gold Coast and in northern New South Wales.
Mr Garrett said that for all intents and purposes, the firm was operating “as usual” and that the firm’s electronic systems allowed the staff to be flexible in relation to either working from home or in the office. He said he believes that the provision of legal services would be classed as an “essential service” which would mean that we should be able to continue to help our clients and assist them through these extraordinary times.”
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