Should Teachers Prepare Wills as Schools Reopen?

August 21, 2020

School districts across the country are wrestling with the unprecedented challenge of starting a new academic year with COVID-19 in full swing. With more than 5.5 million confirmed cases of the virus in the United States, including 180,000 fatalities, the pandemic shows no sign of abating.

Some New Jersey school districts, as well as the entire New York City public school system, are opting for some degree of in-person learning. Many teachers, fearful for their health and safety, are thinking for the first time about making a will. It is indeed tragic that dedicated teachers feel forced to choose between a career they love and their physical well-being.

Even if the pandemic were to cease, teachers should still prepare a will as schools reopen because putting together an estate plan is a sound decision for adults of any age. While end-of-life planning may be uncomfortable for some, taking the time to draw up a few legal documents can ensure one’s wishes will be carried out regarding their own medical treatment and the distribution of their assets to loved ones.

What are the Health Risks of in-Person Learning?

According to the Wall Street Journal, about 85 percent of New York City’s 75,000 teachers will return to in-person teaching in September 2020. New Jersey districts will individually decide on their own how learning will take place.

There are many health risks associated with in-person learning during a pandemic, including the following:

  • Air quality: Some school buildings have aging ventilation systems and narrow passageways. Maintaining proper air flow is essential to reducing the spread of the virus.
  • Surface contamination: Deep cleaning of classrooms, lockers, bathrooms, cafeterias, and hallways poses immense challenges. Some districts are requiring teachers to disinfect desks and computers between classes, which may be impossible.
  • Person-to-person transmission: Enforcing the wearing of masks at all times and social distancing in crowded hallways and cafeterias will take planning.

What Protocols Will Take Place?

Many schools are also adopting protocols for taking students’ temperatures upon arrival. Students who test positive must be quarantined on site where they must wait for their parents to pick them up. All of this requires resources that many schools lack; it also detracts from instructional time.

Teaching younger children creates additional risks. When a child sneezes, needs a drink of water, or asks for help sharpening their pencil, rules regarding the wearing of masks or social distancing are likely to diminish. In many districts, students in kindergarten sit at group tables, not at individual desks.

To reduce the number of children in school buildings at any given time, the New York City public school system is adopting a hybrid blended learning model whereby some students will be in class part of the week while others will be learning at home.

Families can choose all-remote learning for any reason, however, more than 70 percent of New York City’s 1.1 million public school students are economically disadvantaged, according to the New York City Department of Education. These families typically lack the resources to support virtual learning for their children.

What Risks Will Teachers Face?

For teachers who are over 60 years old or have underlying health conditions, such as asthma, or those living with at-risk family members, the prospect of returning to the classroom is frightening. Many teachers also worry about long-term health effects of contracting COVID-19, should they get it and survive.

One overwhelming sentiment is that teachers feel that they are not in control. The issue of control is actually an important part of drawing up an estate plan. Once an individual has certain legal documents in place, they are assured that they will maintain control over decisions involving their health and distribution of assets, even if they are unable to communicate those wishes themselves.

What Should Teachers Consider When Creating an Estate Plan?

Teachers should consider both their individual health care preferences as well as the financial security of their loved ones when creating an estate plan. Creating an estate plan is one way that teachers can preserve their hard-earned savings to protect their families.

It is important to note that a will is just one component of a comprehensive estate plan. The total package of estate planning documents includes the following:

Last Will and Testament

A last will and testament dictates how an individual’s financial assets will be distributed after they die. When a person passes away without a will, state laws dictate who will receive portions of the estate. A judge’s interpretation of the law may or may not be what the deceased person would have wanted. Drafting a will is the best way to answer any questions about distributions of assets.

Trusts

Many people may view trust funds as something that is only relevant for the wealthy. However, if teachers have disabled children or other dependents who are unable to care for themselves, they may want to establish a trust to protect the financial future of those loved ones. There are several types of trusts, including the following:

  • Living trust: Established during the individual’s lifetime, it can be terminated or modified at any time.
  • Testamentary trust: This is established by creating a will; it can be terminated or modified while the grantor is still living.
  • Irrevocable trust: This is separate from the will and cannot be terminated or modified at any time.

A trust can reduce federal and state estate taxes and help beneficiaries avoid going to probate court.

Living Will

A living will, also called a health care directive, clarifies in advance what form of medical treatment an individual wants provided or withheld should that individual become incapacitated. Forms of treatment may include mechanical respiration and the use of feeding tubes to prolong life. For teachers concerned about COVID-19, the question about when to be put on a ventilator and for how long may be particularly relevant.

New York law grants individuals the right to accept or reject medical treatment, including mechanical respiration, intravenous feeding, and other life-prolonging procedures.

Above all, a living will is a legal document reflecting the individual’s right of self-determination. Courts have upheld the expressed wishes outlined in a living will even when the person is unable to communicate those wishes at a later date.

Power of Attorney

A power of attorney (POA) addresses decisions about finances. A POA designates an agent to make financial decisions on an individual’s behalf. It can give that person access to bank accounts and other assets.

A durable POA takes effect immediately upon execution. Alternately, a springing POA only goes into effect when an individual becomes incapacitated. A physician’s signature is required before it becomes effective.

Health Care Proxy

A health care proxy specifies an individual’s wishes in advance regarding who makes health care decisions if a physician determines the individual is unable to make those choices on their own.

Is it Helpful to Hire a Lawyer?

If a teacher wishes to construct an estate plan, it is important to speak with a lawyer. A lawyer will assist in drafting wills and other legal documents and ensure that the process goes smoothly.

Brooklyn Trusts and Estates Lawyers at Korsinsky & Klein, LLP Provide Caring, Professional Legal Guidance to Teachers

Many people put off the task of drafting a will until they are confronted with the possibility of a severe illness. Teachers and others fearful about the implications of COVID-19 may be thinking about estate planning for the first time. Our compassionate Brooklyn trusts and estates lawyers at Korsinsky & Klein, LLP have years of experience helping individuals navigate the process of drafting a will and other legal documents. For an initial consultation, contact us online or call us at 212-495-8133 today. Located in Brooklyn and Manhattan, New York, as well as Lakewood, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout New York and New Jersey.