As our everyday life continues to be impacted by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), Governor Andrew Cuomo has signed various executive orders to address the issues faced by the State and its residents during these unprecedented times. In light of the executive orders that have been issued, the resulting closure of non-essential businesses, the quarantine orders and the aggressive social-distancing requirements, a recurring question being asked by both estate attorneys and their clients is: can estate planning documents be remotely executed and witnessed in accordance with New York State law? As of April 7, 2020, the answer is clearly “yes.”
On April 7, 2020, the Governor issued Executive Order 202.14 (the “Executive Order”) which, among other things, modifies the laws concerning the execution of a last will and testament (see EPTL 3-2.1), a lifetime trust (see EPTL 7-1.17), a statutory gifts rider to a statutory short form power of attorney (see General Obligations Law 5-1514[(b]), real property instruments (see Article 9 of the Real Property Law), health care proxies (see Public Health Law 2981[a]) and an instrument to direct the disposition of a person’s remains upon their death (see Public Health Law 4201).
In its relevant part, the Executive Order provides the following:
- For the purposes of Estates Powers and Trusts Law (EPTL) 3-2.1(a)(2), EPTL 3-2.1(a)(4), Public Health Law 2981(2)(a), Public Health Law 4201(3), Article 9 of the Real Property Law, General Obligations Law 5-1514(9)(b), and EPTL 7-1.17, the act of witnessing that is required under the aforementioned New York State laws is authorized to be performed utilizing audio-video technology provided that the following conditions are met:
- The person requesting that their signature be witnessed, if not personally known to the witness(es), must present valid photo ID to the witness(es) during the video conference, not merely transmit it prior to or after;
- The video conference must allow for direct interaction between the person and the witness(es), and the supervising attorney, if applicable (e.g. no pre-recorded videos of the person signing);
- The witnesses must receive a legible copy of the signature page(s), which may be transmitted via fax or electronic means, on the same date that the pages are signed by the person;
- The witness(es) may sign the transmitted copy of the signature page(s) and transmit the same back to the person; and
- The witness(es) may repeat the witnessing of the original signature page(s) as of the date of execution provided the witness(es) receive such original signature pages together with the electronically witnessed copies within thirty days after the date of execution.
Laws Addressed by the Executive Order
EPTL 3-2.1 provides the formal requirements for the execution and attestation of a last will and testament. The provisions addressed by the Executive Order are copied below:
- EPTL 3-2.1(a)(2) states “[t]he signature of the testator shall be affixed to the will in the presence of each of the attesting witnesses, or shall be acknowledged by the testator to each of them to have been affixed by him or by his direction. The testator may either sign in the presence of, or acknowledge his signature to each attesting witness separately.”
- EPTL 3-2.1(a)(4) states “[t]here shall be at least two attesting witnesses, who shall, within one thirty day period, both attest the testator’s signature, as affixed or acknowledged in their presence, and at the request of the testator, sign their names and affix their residence addresses at the end of the will. There shall be a rebuttable presumption that the thirty day requirement of the preceding sentence has been fulfilled. The failure of a witness to affix his address shall not affect the validity of the will.”
EPTL 7-1.17 provides the formal requirements for the execution, amendment and revocation of lifetime trusts:
- EPTL 7-1.17(a)states “[e]very lifetime trust shall be in writing and shall be executed and acknowledged by the person establishing such trust and, unless such person is the sole trustee, by at least one trustee thereof, in the manner required by the laws of this state for the recording of a conveyance of real property or, in lieu thereof, executed in the presence of two witnesses who shall affix their signatures to the trust instrument.”
- EPTL 7-1.17(b), in pertinent part, states “[a]ny amendment or revocation authorized by the trust shall be in writing and executed by the person authorized to amend or revoke the trust, and except as otherwise provided in the governing instrument, shall be acknowledged or witnessed in the manner required by paragraph (a) of this section, and shall take effect as of the date of such execution.”
General Obligations Law 5-1514(9)(b) requires a statutory gifts rider to a statutory short form power of attorney to “[b]e signed and dated by a principal with capacity, with the signature of the principal duly acknowledged in the manner prescribed for the acknowledgment of a conveyance of real property, and witnessed by two persons who are not named in the instrument as permissible recipients of gifts, in the manner described in subparagraph two of paragraph (a) of section 3-2.1 of the estates, powers and trusts law. The person who takes the acknowledgment, under this paragraph, may also serve as one of the witnesses.”
Public Health Law 2981(2)(a) states “[a] competent adult may appoint a health care agent by a health care proxy, signed and dated by the adult in the presence of two adult witnesses who shall also sign the proxy. Another person may sign and date the health care proxy for the adult if the adult is unable to do so, at the adult’s direction and in the adult’s presence, and in the presence of two adult witnesses who shall sign the proxy. The witnesses shall state that the principal appeared to execute the proxy willingly and free from duress. The person appointed as agent shall not act as witness to execution of the health care proxy.”
Public Health Law 4201 provides that a person designated in a written instrument executed pursuant to the provisions of this section has the prior right to control the disposition of the remains of a decedent over any other individual. The written instrument must be in proper form as exemplified in Pub Health § 4201(3) and must be signed and dated by the decedent and the agent and properly witnessed.
Article 9 of the Real Property Law is titled “Recording Instruments Affecting Real Property” and encompasses §§ 290-336.
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Indeed, without the issuance of the Executive Order, many individuals were unable to obtain access to the assistance they so required to duly execute their estate planning documents. Health care facilities and hospitals are generally closed to the public, non-essential attorneys are required to work remotely from home, and to request witnesses to physically participate in a document execution ceremony is imprudent, if not impossible. The Executive Order permits a person to duly execute their estate planning documents in the virtual presence of the supervising attorney (if any) and the requisite witnesses, while they all remain in the safety of their respective residences (or health care facility or hospital). The Executive Order not only averts the risk of an individual exposing himself or herself to the virus, it provides the ability to those most impacted by the virus to have their estate planning documents duly executed.
The Executive Order is in effect for thirty days until May 7, 2020.
The Executive Order can be found at: https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/no-20214-continuing-temporary-suspension-and-modification-laws-relating-disaster-emergency
 The Executive Order addresses Article 9 of the Real Property Law.