Estate Planning “Living Documents”

When people think of estate planning, they tend to think of Wills and Trusts. However, there are certain documents that everyone should have in place, regardless of estate size. They are:

Power of Attorney – These are for financial transactions during lifetime. If you are unable to act, or if you simply want someone to be able to assist you in acting, even while you are still competent, you can (and should) appoint agents to step into your shoes to act on your behalf. The person you appoint stands in a ‘fiduciary’ position to you. That means he or she must act in your best interest, not in their own best interest.

You may appoint someone to act for a limited time (for example, to take care of your business if you are traveling outside the country), or for a limited purpose (for example, to handle a real estate closing if you know you will not be able to attend). Most people create what is called a ‘durable’ power of attorney, so someone is at the ready to step in and act on your behalf should you need that at some point in the future.

The Power of Attorney is effective only during lifetime; it dies with you. After your death, your Personal Representative (executor) or Trustee take over to manage your affairs.

Health Care Directive – This is a large document in terms of scope. In the first part, you may appoint ‘agents’ to make health care decisions for you if you are not able. While you are able to speak and are competent, you make your own health care decisions; the appointed agents only take over if you are unable to speak for yourself, or if you are declared by your physician to be incompetent to make these decisions.

The next part of the Health Care Directive is the part we used to call the ‘living Will’; it is where you say how you want the end of your life to proceed. You may say you want all steps to be taken to preserve your life, or, you may say you do not want extraordinary measures to be taken if you are in a terminal condition. You may give your agents authority to withdraw life support if it’s been started, or you may say they do not have that authority. You may state your desires regarding organ donation and cremation in this document, as well as outlining special instructions for your health care and or funeral service and burial. These decisions are very personal, and we work with individuals to find language they are comfortable with.

HIPAA Release – This document does not give decision making authority; it simply releases the doctors and health care professionals from the privacy restrictions they are under. In other words, you specify the individuals you authorize the hospital or clinic staff to speak with and give information to regarding your health care. Many people appoint their spouse and adult children to be able to receive that information.

Often, people also ask us to prepare a HIPAA Release for their college age or unmarried adult children to sign, so they (the parents) can receive information regarding that child should the need arise.

Consult with your Estate Planning attorney for more complete information on these and other strategies. This information is not intended to be complete, so do not make decisions based on this article without having your attorney evaluate your specific situation.