As many states continue to struggle with the current surge in COVID-19 cases, the “new normal” demands continued social distancing in many areas of life. What does this mean for estate planning? Clearly, estate planning is as important today — or arguably more important — than ever. But how do you plan your estate and execute critical documents if you’re uncomfortable with face-to-face meetings or are required to self-quarantine?

Fortunately, many estate planning activities may be able to be done from the safety of your own home. Here are some options to consider, but keep in mind that requirements vary significantly from state to state, so it’s important to discuss your plans with your estate planning advisor.

Most planning can be done remotely

There are definite advantages to meeting with your advisor in person to talk about creating or updating your estate plan. But these discussions can be conducted in video conferences or phone calls, and document drafts can be transmitted and reviewed via email, secure online portals or even “snail mail.”

Traditionally, estate planning documents are executed in an attorney’s office in the presence of witnesses and a notary public. In-office document signings may still be possible with appropriate precautions, but there are other options that may allow you to avoid traveling to an attorney’s office.

The options available depend in part on the type of document being signed:

Wills. In most states, a typewritten will (as well as a modification or codicil to an existing will) must be signed in the physical presence of at least two witnesses. Typically, those witnesses must be disinterested — that is, they don’t stand to inherit or otherwise benefit under the will. But some states permit family members or other interested parties to serve as witnesses. In those states, it may be possible to conduct a will signing at home (with instructions from your attorney) and have members of your household witness it.

What about notarization? Wills are usually notarized as a best practice, but in most states it’s not required. However, wills are often accompanied by a self-proving affidavit, which must be notarized.

Another option in some states is a “holographic,” or handwritten, will, which generally doesn’t require witnesses or notarization.

Trusts. In many states, you can sign a trust document without witnesses or notarization, and it may even be possible to sign it electronically. One potential strategy for avoiding traditional will-signing requirements is to sign a holographic “pour over” will that transfers all assets to a revocable trust, which can accomplish many of the same objectives as a traditional will.

Monitor legal developments

Requirements for signing estate planning documents have been evolving in recent years, and the COVID-19 pandemic may accelerate the process more. A few states permit electronic wills (e-wills) and online notarization, which makes it possible to execute these documents without the need for physical interaction with anyone. These technologies are still in their infancy, but they’re being considered by lawmakers in many states. Contact us with any questions regarding your estate planning documents.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

How to conduct a remote fraud investigation

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most fraud investigations took place in the office or other work facility. This made it easy for investigators to gather and analyze data and interview suspects and witnesses in a face-to-face setting.

But if your company allows employees to work from home — either temporarily or permanently — you may need to conduct a remote fraud investigation. In addition to suspects and witnesses working remotely, those tasked with conducting investigations (including outside experts) may also be remote. Here’s how to manage these situations.

Policies and procedures

First, develop policies and procedures for remote investigations. If you already have written polices for traditional fraud investigations, use them as a starting point. Some features, such as the role and processes of investigators may remain basically the same.

Cover the entire process, including:

  • The technology solutions you’ll use to communicate with employees and investigators,
  • Backup options in the event of technical problems, and
  • How you’ll share relevant files and documents — both electronic and paper.

Once you’ve developed a draft, have legal counsel review it.

Conducting interviews 

Before conducting interviews, prepare subjects for the process. Let them know approximately how long the interview might take and whether they must review documents before or during the discussion. Stress the importance of sitting in a quiet location with minimal background noise where they can remain undisturbed throughout the interview.

To provide your team with ample opportunity to detect verbal and nonverbal signs of deception, subjects need to keep their video feeds on the entire time. Most computers, smartphones, tablets and wireless connections can facilitate video calls, but be sure to test subjects’ devices and Internet connections before interviews. Consider having a trusted member of your IT department perform the test, instructing this employee not to discuss anything specific about the interview or the fraud allegations.

There are a couple things you should keep in mind. First, any conversation conducted via video conferencing will be recorded and can be used in a subsequent court case. So discuss interview plans with your attorney.

Second, expect the unexpected. For example, how will you proceed if a fraud suspect declines to answer questions, turns off his or her video or audio feed or consults with an unknown third party in the room? Subjects attempting to dodge uncomfortable questions may pretend to have connectivity problems. 

Unique challenges

Remote fraud investigations present unique challenges — many of which can be anticipated and mitigated. But even if you normally would conduct a preliminary fraud investigation in-house, consider engaging a forensic accounting expert early in the process to help ensure you don’t miss anything.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

If you were to ask your IT staff about how tech support for remote employees is going, they might say something along the lines of, “Fantastic! Never better!” However, if you asked remote workers the same question, their response could be far less enthusiastic.

This was among the findings of a report by IT solutions provider 1E entitled “2021: Assessing IT’s readiness for the year of flexible working,” which surveyed 150 IT workers and 150 IT managers in large U.S. organizations. The report strikingly found that, while 100% of IT managers said they believed their internal clients were satisfied with tech support, only 44% of remote employees agreed.

Bottom line impact

By now, over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work has become common practice. Some businesses may begin reopening their offices and facilities as employees get vaccinated and, one hopes, virus metrics fall to manageable levels. However, that doesn’t mean everyone will be heading back to a communal working environment.

Flexible work arrangements, which include the option to telecommute, are expected to remain a valued employment feature. Remote work is also generally less expensive for employers, so many will likely continue offering or mandating it after the pandemic fades.

For business owners, this means that providing optimal IT support to remote employees will remain a mission-critical task. Failing to do so will likely hinder productivity, lower morale, and may lead to reduced employee retention and longer times to hire — all costly detriments to the bottom line.

Commonsense tips

So, how can you ensure your remote employees are well-supported? Here are some commonsense tips:

Ask them about their experiences. In many cases, business owners are simply unaware of the troubles and frustrations of remote workers when it comes to technology. Develop a relatively short, concisely worded survey and gather their input.

Invest in ongoing training for support staff. If you have IT staffers who, for years, provided mostly in-person desktop support to on-site employees, they might not serve remote workers as effectively. Having them take one or more training courses may trigger some “ah ha!” moments that improve their interactions and response times.

Review and, if necessary, upgrade systems and software. Your IT support may be falling short because it’s not fully equipped to deal with so many remote employees — a common problem during the pandemic. Assess whether:

  • Your VPN system and licensing suit your needs,
  • Additional or better cloud solutions could help, and
  • Your remote access software is helping or hampering support.

Ensure employees know how to work safely. Naturally, the remote workers themselves play a role in the stability and security of their devices and network connections. Require employees to undergo basic IT training and demonstrate understanding and compliance with your security and usage policies.

Your technological future

The pandemic has been not only a tragic crisis, but also a marked accelerator of the business trend toward remote work. We can help you evaluate your technology costs, measure productivity and determine whether upgrades are likely to be cost-effective.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

The COVID-19 crisis is affecting not only the way many businesses operate, but also how they assess productivity. How can you tell whether you’re getting enough done when so much has changed? There’s no easy, one-size-fits-all answer, but business owners should ask the question so you can adjust expectations and objectives accordingly.

Impact of remote work

Heading into the crisis, concerns about productivity were certainly on the minds of many in leadership positions. In March, research firm Gartner conducted a snap poll that found 76% of HR leaders reported their organizations’ managers were concerned about “productivity or engagement of their teams when remote.”

Many of these fears may well have been alleviated after a month or two. News provider USA Today collaborated with researchers YouGov and social media platform LinkedIn to conduct a poll in April that found 54% of respondents (professionals ages 18-74) said that working remotely has positively affected their productivity. They cited factors such as time saved by not having to commute and fewer distractions from co-workers.

The bottom line is that allowing — or, in recent months, requiring — employees to work remotely shouldn’t drastically alter your expectations of their productivity. Every employee must continue to fulfill his or her job duties and meet annual performance management objectives (as perhaps adjusted in light of the pandemic and altered economy).

However, it’s unrealistic to expect anyone to accomplish markedly more just because he or she is no longer subject to a long commute and regular office hours. In fact, when assessing productivity, business owners should bear in mind the dual challenge of work-life balance while working remotely (childcare obligations, etc.) and the mental health component of living through a pandemic.

Solid metrics

If remote work isn’t a major concern for your company — either because your employees were already doing it, adapted to it readily or simply cannot work from home — there remain some tried-and-true ways to evaluate productivity. Metrics can be useful.

For example, one broad measurement of productivity is revenue per employee. To calculate it, you’ll need to check your financial statements to see how much revenue your business brought in during a defined period. Then, you divide that dollar figure by your total number of employees. The idea is that every worker should generally bring in enough revenue to rationalize his or her paycheck.

It’s not a “be all, end all” metric by any means, but revenue per employee can help accurately shape your understanding of productivity and cash flow. And, as mentioned, you’ll need to think about how this year’s economic conditions have altered your productivity needs and what employees can reasonably accomplish.

Careful calibration

When the subject of productivity arises, many business owners’ instinctive answer is “more, more, more!” Carefully calibrating your expectations and goals, however, can lead to more sustainable results. We can help you choose and calculate the right metrics and set realistic productivity objectives.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Thanks to affordable technology, more and more companies have been allowing employees to work remotely in recent years. It’s become feasible to procure laptops, set up security protocols, use cloud servers and rely on employees’ home Wi-Fi connections to create functional virtual workspaces. In turn, many of these businesses have lowered overhead costs such as office rent and utilities.

Of course, with the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many companies have had to mandate that any employees who can work from home do so. As a result, virtual team building has become more important than ever.

Ensure consistency of processes and expectations

When employees work from home, many of the processes they use to complete tasks and fulfill duties may change slightly — or even drastically — to fit the technology used to execute them. This can cause confusion and lead to mistakes or conflicts that affect employee morale.

Make sure every virtual team develops and follows processes that produce results consistent with those generated on your physical premises. Doing so may require a concerted effort that slows productivity temporarily while everyone gets on the same page.

Meanwhile, reinforce with workers that your expectations of them are the same whether they work on-site or remotely. They shouldn’t feel as if they must work extra hard from home to “prove themselves,” but they do need to demonstrate that they’re getting things done.

Hold regular meetings — and “irregular” ones

Among the biggest challenges for work-from-home employees is feeling disconnected from their fellow team members. Brief, regularly scheduled Web-based meetings are a good way to address this dilemma. These gatherings allow everyone to see or hear one another (or both) and provide employees with the opportunity to voice concerns and contribute ideas.

If a given team is relatively new at working remotely, or you just want to bring any group of employees closer together, you could also hold special meetings specifically geared toward team building. There’s a wide variety of icebreakers, games and activities that teams can use to learn more about each other and to gain comfort in communicating.

For example, you can invite participants to share stories and photos of their pets, hold trivia contests or even sing karaoke. Just be sure to tailor such team-building efforts to your company’s culture and be wary of pushing remote workers too far out of their comfort zones.

Find a way

Whether your business has had employees working remotely for years or just recently had to ask workers to stay home because of COVID-19, there are plenty of ways to help them communicate better and enhance their performance as a team. We offer assistance in measuring productivity and making smart investments in the right team-building technology.

© 2020 Covenant CPA