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COVID Exacerbates Financial Planning Issues in Underserved Communities

Low-income and minority communities have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic. According to the NY Fed, these communities have shown significantly higher illness and mortality rates caused by COVID-19 compared to higher income and predominantly white communities.

These underlying causes are complex, but can be partially explained by the prevalence of high-risk factors like obesity, respiratory diseases, and diabetes, as well as economic factors such as lower rates of health insurance and inadequate hospital resources.

A COVID-19 illness can be significant and prolonged, causing financial hardship to families due to loss of the income usually earned by the patient while they’re ill, permanent loss of income if they pass away, and incurred debt from medical costs related to any treatment. In addition, while the long-term health effects of COVID aren’t yet fully known, the Mayo Clinic reports that the permanent organ damage suffered by many COVID patients increases the likelihood of developing significant illnesses in the future, such as heart failure or other heart complications, pneumonia and long-term breathing problems, stroke, seizure, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and a higher probability of developing dangerous blood clots.

Financial advisors should be mindful of the impact of the effects of the pandemic, particularly to provide strategies to protect lower-income families against financial ruin. Advisors, who are well aware of the risks of failing to plan, should be mindful that those risks are more pronounced at present.

The potential for financial insecurity is staggering: More than half of adults under age 64 don’t have a will. In lower-income communities, the numbers are even lower, with only 55 percent of families with household income $75,000 or greater having a will, and only 31 percent with household income under $30,000 having a will. For minority populations, only 28 percent of non-white adults have wills compared to 51 percent of white adults.

These statistics are more cause for concern among low-income populations, who, without a financial plan, are at higher risk of negative financial impact from the long-term illness or death of an income earner and related medical expenses.

Financial planning does not need to be a costly endeavor. The following are some low-cost planning strategies that can be implemented to protect clients. If your client is also a member of a minority population, cultural sensitivity, including multi-lingual offerings, will also be necessary to integrate into an advisory plan.

Healthcare planning. If your clients are young and healthy, they should explore options for obtaining health insurance. In addition, the long-term health impacts of COVID-19 bring long-term care planning to the forefront. Long-term care insurance adds another layer of protection to protect against overwhelming debt due to costs from a prolonged illness. Such insurance covers costs that may not otherwise be covered by health insurance, such as nursing home costs, custodial care, and care for assistance with daily activities like bathing and getting dressed.

In addition to insurance coverage, clients need to plan for incapacity. This includes formalizing a client’s wishes about their medical care in the event they are incapable of making those decisions. In the most severe COVID cases, the patient is put on a respirator or ventilator and may be sedated or unable to speak, in which case a predetermined plan of action would be critical. A living will, also known as an advance medical directive, is a document that details the client’s wishes about treatment options for end-of-life care. Similarly, a Physician’s Order for Life Sustaining Treatment, or POLST, is a document created between a patient and physician discussing end of life treatment options. A springing durable power of attorney for health care appoints an individual to make healthcare decisions for the patient during the time when they may be incapacitated. Lastly, a Do Not Resuscitate Order (a DNR) advises emergency healthcare providers to avoid resuscitative measures. An attorney must be consulted for preparation of the will and powers of attorney.

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Income protection. Income protection measures should be taken to protect against a long-term illness or death of an income earner. The loss of income is particularly impactful in lower income communities for a couple of reasons. Research by the NY Fed shows that higher density households have markedly higher rates of COVID-19 cases. Moreover, where the number of individuals living in each household is higher, more individuals may rely on the income earners, multiplying the financial loss of one death.

Disability insurance. Short- and long-term disability insurance can protect against some loss of income if a person suffers a long-term illness from COVID. Disability insurance is particularly important for single-parent homes or one-income homes.

Life insurance. A whole life insurance policy or a term policy can provide financial security if the income-earner passes away from COVID. There are several planning goals that can be accomplished with a death benefit, including:

  • A term policy can provide a “safety blanket” while an income-earner may be exposed to COVID, particularly for essential workers and healthcare workers.
     
  • A term policy can replace lost income for an income-earner who is caring for minors for the time period until they reach the age of majority or graduate college and can gain employment.
     
  • A term or whole life policy can provide funds to care for dependents in the event that the primary caretaker passes away.
     
  • A term or whole life policy can provide funds to satisfy the debts of the decedent, including funeral costs and debt related to the decedent’s last illness, which may be prolonged and significant due to COVID.

Estate planning for property. A low-income individual may not have significant assets to pass wealth, but that doesn’t mean estate planning for property is irrelevant. A will can protect the decedent’s assets against estranged family members who may have a legal claim under the state’s intestacy laws. In addition, if the client has minor children or dependents, a will can name a guardian and establish a financial foundation to provide care for the children/dependents. The primary residence is typically the most significant assets that individuals own, and in fact, 54 percent of wealth owned by Black households is made up of home equity, so planning for the transfer of the home is crucial. If the client is not married but has a partner they would like to provide for, a will can provide assets for the surviving partner or ensure they can remain in the home for the remainder of their life or for a term of years, after which the home can pass to the client’s children or other family members. Unmarried partners would otherwise be ignored under the state’s intestacy laws. Lastly, a power of attorney for property can be created so that another individual can access bank accounts to pay expenses in the event that the COVID patient is incapacitated.

There is a cost to providing this security, which can be an obstacle for lower-income families to seek professional advice. Even for small estates, an estate planning attorney’s services can run between $1,000 to $5,000. However, many states offer pro-bono community services through legal aid or state bar associations.

Some community organizations offer services to help advance financial education and access to resources relating to financial planning – as the AKArama Foundation did recently with a free webinar targeted to help Black people in the context of the pandemic threats. Partnering with communicating organizations could help advisors develop stronger relationships and establish trust with individuals new to financial planning.

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