Allow me to interrupt your search for paper products and fresh produce to address some of the many anxieties you may have as we move forward in these uncharted waters: estate planning. Let me begin by pointing out that estate planning during a pandemic is also referred to as…estate planning. However, under ordinary circumstances, this tends to be relegated to the back burners of our minds — a luxury most of us can no longer afford as we confront issues related to serious illness and mortality.
Here are some things you may be wondering, and believe it or not all of the following fall under that giant umbrella we refer to as “estate planning”:
QUESTION #1: Can I make sure that there is someone who can continue to pay my bills and handle things for my kids if I suddenly become very sick and can no longer manage these things on my own?
Yes! The document you will need is referred to as a Power of Attorney — this is where you will name an agent who would have authority to represent you in financial and legal matters while you are living, but are unable to handle these matters for yourself.
For you married persons — note that it is a common misconception that spouses can sign each other’s names on a legal document and represent each other in financial matters. This is incorrect. Without a Power of Attorney, you actually would be required to petition a Judge to become your spouse’s Guardian (which is an expensive, and lengthy, legal proceeding), before you would have the authority to act in such a capacity.
QUESTION #2: How can I make sure that my siblings and I are all on the same page when it comes to my parents’ wishes regarding end-of-life medical decisions?
Now is a good time for your parents to dig out their Living Wills, Health Care Powers of Attorney, and/or Advance Medical Directives and review them. If it has been a while since they were drafted (before HIPAA, for example), some updates may be needed. Also, your parents may now feel differently about end of life decisions than they did when their documents were first prepared (they may have grandchildren now, or additional in-laws, or there may have been a death in the family, for example).
If your parents don’t have any legal documents naming a Health Care Agent and providing instruction regarding medical care, it’s a good idea to get this done. I emphasize to my clients that the goal is to put the documents in place that will ensure the clients’ wishes are properly documented and followed. Facing serious illness and the end of a loved one’s life is hard enough without having to guess what kind of care the person would have wanted and who they would have wanted to make decisions for them.
QUESTION #3: What do I need to do to allow someone to have legal custody of my kids after I die?
You need to have a Last Will and Testament prepared that includes a provision specifically stating who would serve as Guardian of minor children after you pass away. I recommend nominating a first choice of Guardian, and at least one successor to your first choice.
QUESTION #4: Do I need to worry about any of this if I’m not married and have no children?
Actually…yes, you absolutely do. Most States have what I will refer to as “default rules” outlining how a person’s estate will be distributed and who would have priority to make certain decisions if a person dies or becomes incapacitated without having a Power of Attorney, Advance Medical Directive, or Last Will and Testament. Those default rules generally begin by giving a spouse, and then children, the priority. We often end up seeing some illogical, and probably unintended results, when we have clients who are not married and have no children suddenly pass away or become very ill without any properly executed estate planning documents in place.
This is also true for our clients who find themselves in any type of “non-traditional” living situation — such as cohabitation or serving as a care-taker for someone who lives with them or having a child or parent that will be inheriting from them who has special needs. Each of these situations requires some careful planning to ensure that documents are in place to address your wishes regarding how you want your estate distributed after you pass away and who will be the key players in making medical, legal, and financial decisions for you if you become very ill.
QUESTION #5: Is it possible to address any aspect of my estate plan during a quarantine?
Yes! We are able to schedule telephone conferences to discuss your wishes with regard to your estate planning documents, email or mail drafts to you to review, and provide instructions for signing.
Remember: everyone should address their estate plan, not just those of us who are sick or who are at high risk of becoming sick. The troubling circumstances we’re currently finding ourselves in tend to bring these matters to the forefront. We are here to assist you in managing this very important aspect of planning for whatever the future may bring. Good health to you and your loved ones as we navigate this uncertainty together.
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