Ruth Gearhiser only began thinking seriously about her age in recent months. “Although chronologically I am ‘old,’ I have never considered myself as such,” says Gearhiser, 73.
COVID-19 changed her outlook.
“I was either reading the news on my phone or listening to something on TV,” Gearhiser says, “but for some reason, it finally dawned on me that at my age - and who knows the duration of the pandemic - I might not make it through this.”
So Gearhiser went online and downloaded a living will form. She thought about how to spend her “last days and minutes.” With everything in order, she told her children which cabinet drawer held the death-related documents.
Gearhiser says reminding her children of the documents still elicits a sigh and a “yes, Mother,” but she hopes it will ease the burden of her passing in the future.
End-of-life planning isn’t solely a matter of deciding who gets the vintage purse or baseball card collection. While a will dictates where assets go after death, a "living will" looks at the process of death - how one dies. There’s also Health Care Power of Attorney (POA), a legal document that gives a specified individual the ability to make decisions about medical care on someone’s behalf.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has already killed over 4,000 people in Ohio, has pushed many more residents to think about death and what happens after.
Cake is a free online platform with resources for people navigating the legal questions of mortality. Materials on the site help clients think through health care, funerals, and financial and legal concerns. There’s even advice for how to handle one’s “digital legacy.”
Suelin Chen, co-founder and CEO of Cake, has noticed an uptick in users across the nation since the start of the pandemic. According to Cake's internal data, Ohio now has over four times as many users taking advantage of the online end-of-life planning services, compared to before the pandemic.
“For Ohio, we have seen an increase in traffic from about 5,000 people in February to 22,000 people in July,” Chen says.
While Chen is quick to note Cake has slowly been acquiring new users throughout the past year, she admits the pandemic actually makes a lot of these conversations easier to have.
“End-of-life planning is on everybody’s to-do list, but it doesn’t always feel urgent or like the top thing you want to tackle this weekend,” Chen says. “Now a lot of people are like, ‘I always wanted to get this done and we’re living through a pandemic - so maybe I should get this done now.’”
Chen adds that the increase in users isn’t the result of more septuagenarians like Gearhiser using the service - they’re actually seeing more younger users joining up.
“Although we have users aged 18-98, about a third of our audience is 25-34 years old,” Chen states.
Myrriah Clarke is in her early 30s, and says she and her husband recently wrote a will and POA in light of the pandemic using the online site eforms. Clarke is immunocompromised and her husband is a nurse at a local Columbus hospital.
Clarke says that while COVID-19 and a recent house purchase spurred them to plan for the future, the idea of death itself wasn’t new.
“I remember being in middle school when 9/11 happened,” Clarke says. “We’ve had the issues in the Middle East and a recession, and now we have a pandemic. I think that a lot of millennials have an ability to look at the finality of life and not run away from it.”
Clarke sees millennials and Generation Z as two age groups exposed to political and economic uncertainty.
“I mean, look how many millennials are completely drowning in student debt,” she says. “Most of us don’t think it’s going to get better, so let’s just prepare for the end.”
Westerville native Mary Beth Ray is currently deployed in Japan working as a family physician for the U.S. Navy. She is in her early 30s, and says she and her husband decided to write their wills recently.
“I have never been truly frightened of passing away,” Ray says. “Being around people who die and are sick, it’s natural.” But having seen some difficult deaths, Ray says “it’s hard when you’re unprepared, so I wanted to be prepared.”
LegalZoom, an online portal for legal help, found in a forthcoming report that around 70% of people ages 18-34 don’t have a living will, compared to 62% of individuals overall without an end-of-life plan.
These stats may change soon: The study also found COVID-19 is the main reason that 52% of people aged 18-34 recently decided to pen their wills.
“Typically, the number one and two reasons people get a will is because they’re getting married or having children,” says Chas Rampenthal, an attorney at LegalZoom.
Rampenthal also says a boom of will creation in response to major events and catastrophes is nothing new. He’s been with LegalZoom since 2003 and remembers specifically the impact of Hurricane Katrina and even celebrity deaths on users.
“Whenever the public is more aware of a celebrity passing without a will, we’ve seen the number of wills rise,” Rampenthal says. “We can go back and see upticks where [natural events] make people think, ‘That was a close one for me.’”
At The Ohio State University, the office of Student Legal Affairs is a non-profit office providing legal advice, counsel, and resources to Ohio State students. Among the services they offer are simple estate planning, advance directives and the power of attorney.
Molly Hegarty, managing director of Student Legal Affairs, says their office is seeing many of the same trends as the online services, with the number of appointments increasing over 150% from this time last year.
“Currently, we’ve seen a sharp increase in requests for Health Care Power of Attorney from incoming freshmen,” Hegarty says.
The Franklin County Recorder’s Office also provides access to living will documents and will house the documents for those who need a safe space, free of charge. Nelson Devezin, director of community outreach at the office, says the stream of requests has still been steady - despite their physical offices being closed for the majority of the pandemic.
They’re continuing their efforts to reach veterans, houseless communities, and others who may need other recording services, such as birth certificates and veteran ID cards, in addition to living wills.
Breann Smith is a case manager who works with HIV-positive clients. Talking about living wills was part of her work, and is what helped inspired her to create her own two years ago, even though she’s still under 30. She says it’s something that’s much easier to do when you’re healthy.
“If you put it off one day too many, it could be too late,” Smith says. “I think everyone should do it when they turn 18.”
For many, writing a will is a way to exert some power over the uncertainty of the pandemic.
“Maybe it’s because I’m a control freak, and I think I’d like to control a little bit of this,” Gearhiser says.