The beginning of a new year is a good time to take a look at your estate plan to make sure it is up to date. Less than half of people actually have any estate planning documents in place and many of those people may have outdated documents. Documents that were created when your children were born may need updating 20, 30, or 40 years later, after your family and financial situation have changed entirely.
Estate planning is all about five essential documents. Here they are in order of importance:
- The Durable Power of Attorney
The most important estate planning instrument for taking care of you and your family during life, as opposed to after death, is the durable power of attorney. This appoints one or more people you trust to step in and handle your finances and legal matters in the event of your incapacity, whether through illness, dementia, or an accident, and whether the incapacity is temporary or permanent. In the absence of a durable power of attorney, family members often must resort to going to court to be appointed conservator. This causes delay and expensive and unnecessary legal fees. It can also cause infighting by family members since you have not chosen who should step in.
While the concept of the durable power of attorney is simple – I appoint you as my agent for financial and legal matters in the event of incapacity – the devil, as always, is in the details. You have to make decisions about how many agents to appoint, whether to have alternates, whether to allow gifting, when the power of attorney should take effect, and whether to grant trust powers. Your attorney can help you with these details.
- Health Care Proxy
Like the durable power of attorney, a health care agent steps in for you to make health care decisions when and if you become incapacitated. Unlike a durable power of attorney, it only takes effect when a doctor determines that you are unable to make decisions yourself.
The main problem with health care proxies is that agents often have no idea or only a vague idea of what decision the patient would make in a particular circumstance. This can be addressed in one or more of these ways: a medical directive, a conversation between the potential patient and the agent, and a number of available workbooks (see below). A general medical directive can be included with the health care proxy that says either (1) pull the plug if I’m in a vegetative state or irreversible coma, (2) balance the potential benefit and discomfort of any proposed treatment, or (3) do whatever you can to keep me alive.
Part of the problem with giving guidance to one’s agent is that it’s hard to predict situations that may occur and treatments that may be available. A number of organizations have developed workbooks to provide more detailed guidance than simply “keep me alive at all costs” or “do nothing.” They include: The Consumer’s Toolkit from the American Bar Association and Five Wishes from Aging with Dignity
- HIPAA Release
In addition to a health care proxy, everyone needs a HIPAA release. The HIPAA law bars medical practitioners from releasing medical information to anyone, even to the spouse of a patient, without a release. You may well ask why a heath care proxy isn’t sufficient. There are a few answers: First, the health care proxy is “springing” in that it doesn’t get activated until or unless the patient is declared incapacitated. Second, while the health care proxy may only name one person at a time, you may well want a much broader group of people to communicate with medical providers. The agent may not always be available or may not be the first person on the scene.
All too often we have seen medical providers hide behind HIPAA to avoid having to deal with family members, sometimes to great harm to the patient. Especially in emergency situations, family members often have vital information about the patient, whether it’s the medications he is taking, allergies he may have, or his usual physical and mental health. HIPAA does not say that medical personnel cannot listen to this information, but it can be misconstrued in that fashion. It’s best to eliminate the whole issue by having a HIPAA release signed and available in case it’s ever needed.
- Your Will
Your will says who will get your belongings when you die and who will be in charge of paying your bills, filing your tax returns, gathering your stuff and distributing it according to your instructions.
But here’s the irony: although the will gets all the recognition and there’s a whole set of laws governing the so-called “probate” process, these days most assets pass outside of probate. What the will says does not apply in many situations, including: joint accounts that pass to the other joint owners, retirement plans and life insurance policies that go to designated beneficiaries, and property in trust that passes to the beneficiaries named in the trust document. Only what you own in your own name alone passes under the will. In addition, while the will requires a lot of formality – two witnesses and a notary all signing at the same time – these other forms of passing on property usually require only the signature of the owner, or sometimes simply filling out a form online.
That said, wills are important in terms of distributing your tangible personal property – stuff you can touch, such as furniture, jewelry, tools, clothing, boats, and cars. Your will appoints your executor or personal representative who is in charge of carrying out your wishes. This can be very important in avoiding squabbling among children. And your will can be used to appoint guardians for minor children. A will permits you to make charitable or other specific bequests. Finally your will can serve as a failsafe in case other means of passing on property fail.
- Revocable Trust
The documents listed above may be enough, but you may also want a revocable trust, sometimes called a “living” trust. A trust is a construct under which one or more people, the trustees, manage property or investments for the benefit of one or more people, the beneficiaries. In a revocable trust, typically at the start the same person acts as the creator of the trust, the grantor or donor, as trustee and as beneficiary. Not much changes in their lives after they set up the trust. But it avoids probate by naming successor beneficiaries after the initial beneficiary passes away. While probate is not the worst thing that can happen to people, avoiding it can save heirs time and trouble.
But more importantly, a trust is a terrific tool for intervening in the event of incapacity. Financial institutions that are resistant to accepting durable powers of attorney appear to be more comfortable with trusts when a successor trustee is named. But it works even better when a parent names one or more adult children as co-trustees. The parent then does not give up any rights or autonomy, but permits the child to begin participating in financial management. Even if the child does nothing, he or she can view accounts and step in immediately if a problem arises. This can be especially important in the event of dementia or scams. Seniors are the primary victims of scams and having a trusted family member with access to accounts can help identify scams and permit intervention to limit their effect.
In addition to probate avoidance and incapacity protection, trusts are infinitely flexible in terms of how they are drafted. They can state any number of specifics on who receives property when, for instance, permitting its distribution over time to children and grandchildren. The options and opportunities for creativity are limitless. Revocable trusts are not, however, effective tools for asset protection in the event of long-term care costs or when seeking Medicaid eligibility.
As you can see, most of these documents are about life not death. Of course, they’re still about planning for an unwanted event – incapacity of some sort. It’s like insurance to make sure that you and your family are taken care of if an unfortunate accident occurs.