The COVID-19 pandemic affects us all. The Governor's Safer at Home Executive Order and business shut down has certainly changed our lives. Many businesses are closed. Others, such as restaurants, are still open but operating on a reduced basis.
Floridians have discovered new and old ways to fill their time during the pandemic. Many started exercising and it is refreshing to see so many bike riders and walkers. Some are revisiting favorite movies or books and there are even those pursuing more education. Parents of school-age children have become teachers and teachers have become video stars.
Time at home offers new opportunities or simply the time needed for many clients to attend to legal matters. These are matters clients have been putting off or which may not even have arisen until the pandemic. Through the use of telephone conferences, Facetime, Zoom and other conferencing programs, clients can meet with their attorneys and work even more efficiently than before the pandemic. This column will highlight some of the legal matters our clients are addressing while "safer at home."
Estate planning is one area that may have actually benefited from the Governor's orders. Perhaps because the pandemic has reminded us we are not invulnerable or simply because people now have time to think about their estate plan, working on wills trusts and powers of attorney are being done through virtual meetings with the attorney. We have found virtual meetings to be quite successful and time efficient for both our attorneys and our clients. Information can be gathered through use of estate planning forms and discussions, including visual feedback, complete the picture. Documents are prepared and sent via encrypted email and ultimately can be signed by either drive-through, drive-by or in our office with attendant handwashing, sanitizing and social distancing.
Our clients have not only been working on estate planning. They have also been attending to other overlooked or deferred parts of their legal needs. Liability issues and insurance are being given consideration. Does the homeowner's policy include an umbrella for personal liability "just in case?" That type of umbrella provides protection over and above what might be available from other policies and can be of real benefit if one is involved in an automobile accident or other liability situation.
Does the homeowner's policy have sufficient coverage for potential property damage? Cost of replacement increases over time and someone owning a house for years may not have increased coverage to a sufficient level. That is not necessarily a legal issue, but it is one that can be part of an overall legal review. While on the subject of liability, our clients are revisiting title to the vehicles and boats. Joint ownership may seem like a great idea to be sure that a surviving spouse owns both cars and the boat after death of the first spouse. But, joint ownership also means complete liability for any injury caused by the operator of the boat or motor vehicle. Boats and motor vehicles are dangerous instrumentalities under Florida law and the owner of a dangerous instrumentality is liable for any injuries caused by the operator.
We recommend our clients separate ownership of motor vehicles so that each party owns the vehicle he or she operates most frequently. In Florida, that can be a big protection as the assets of both spouses could be reached by an injured person if the injury is caused by operation of a motor vehicle owned by both. If the injury is caused by the operator of a vehicle owned by the operator, assets of the other spouse will not be reachable and, under Florida law, assets owned by both spouses jointly will probably be immune as well.
Probate will also likely be avoided for the cars too. Under Section 319.28 Florida Statutes, the person who is to get a motor vehicle after death of the owner can generally get new title by visiting a DMV office, without going through probate.
As we work through estate planning with our clients, we also recommend that they get all of their records and papers in order. Time at home gives them a perfect opportunity to organize their records and many are doing so. This can be an important aspect of estate planning, since the plan usually involves giving assets to people the planner cares about. Most agree to use a living trust and other tools to avoid probate and make distribution of their assets as easy as possible. Organizing records helps attain that goal.
Our business clients are also reviewing legal issues placed on the back burner during their seasonal business or otherwise. One area that is being given increased attention is slow paying or nonpaying customers. With business slow or shut, these clients cannot afford to let unpaid accounts languish. Many are willing to make payment arrangements with customers facing similar financial problems, but all need the income from overdue accounts instead of the promise of payment. A letter from the attorney and possibly a lawsuit can go a long way toward improving the receivables for a small business.
Businesses are also revisiting the forms used in their business. Are their contracts up to date? Do they include a provision for attorney's fees in event of collection? Do they meet state and federal requirements? Conversely, do contracts with suppliers seem reasonable or include provisions that are unacceptable? These are all matters we review with clients and the result is an improved business position.
Business clients are also reviewing and revisiting their corporate organization. Have they kept appropriate minutes? Are the stock ownership records accurate? Do the bylaws or operating agreement need revision? Is there a need for shareholder agreement concerning buying or selling stock, adding investors, responsibility of each partner or the like? Again, these matters are often put on the back burner. During the Safer at Home order, our clients have time to attend to what can be some of the most important legal issues they will ever face. It takes only one dispute among partners for a partner to long for a buy sell agreement to avoid significant time and expense of litigation.
The Governor's order prohibiting short-term rentals provided our landlord clients with much to think about. A lot of them prepared their own leases and similar documents but found them unhelpful and even problematic during the pandemic. A lot of leases suffer from lack of clarity and failure to comply with mandates of Florida law. Through consultation with counsel, they are revising and updating their forms and will be ready for takeoff when the Governor reopens the rental spigot.
A lot of people know they need to attend to legal matters but never get around to them. One silver lining of the Safer at Home order and slowdown in our daily life has been clients now have time to attend to these and other matters which just didn't get done before.
William G. Morris is the principal of William G. Morris, P.A. William G. Morris and his firm have represented clients in Collier County for over 30 years. His practice includes litigation and divorce, business law, estate planning, associations and real estate. The information in this column is general in nature and not intended as legal advice.