What Is an Advance Directive, and Why You Need This Document?

The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on the entire world. No wonder—it’s a frightening disease that experts are just beginning to understand. Many of us are asking ourselves: Am I ready for a worst-case scenario? Anyone who does not have the health care portion of their estate plan in order, needs to address it now, says the timely article “COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of completing advance directives” from Cincinnati.com.

The topic of an advance directive used to be introduced with a question about what would happen if a person were in a car accident, rushed to the hospital and unable to convey their wishes for care.  The question has now become, what if a sudden onset of COVID-19 occurred, and you were unable to speak on your own behalf? Would your loved ones know what you would want, or would they have to guess?

All adults—that is, anyone over the age of 18—should have an advance directive. The process of creating this and other health care-related estate planning documents will provide the answers to your loved ones, while helping you work through your wishes. Here’s how to start:

What matters to you? Give this considerable thought. What is important to you, who best knows and understands you and who would you trust to make critical decisions on your behalf, in the event of a medical emergency? What medical treatment would you want—or not want—and who can you count on to carry out your wishes?

Get documents in order, so your wishes are carried out. Your estate planning attorney can help you draft and execute the documents you need, so you can be confident that they will be treated as legitimate by health care providers. The estate planning lawyer will know how to execute the documents, so they are in compliance with your state’s laws. Here’s what you’ll want:

  • A living will, which records your wishes for medical treatment, if you cannot speak on your own behalf.
  • Medical power of attorney, to designate a person to make health care decisions, when you are not able to do so. The person is referred to as an agent, surrogate or proxy.
  • A HIPAA release form, so the person you designate may speak with your medical care providers.

Note that none of these documents concerns distribution of your personal property and assets. For that, you’ll want a will or revocable living trust, which your estate planning attorney can prepare for you.

Talk to loved ones now. Consider this conversation a gift to them. This alleviates them from a lifetime of wondering if they did the right thing for you. Have a forthright conversation with them, let them know about the documents you have had prepared and what your wishes are.

Reference: Cincinnati.com (April 27, 2020) “COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of completing advance directives”

Estate Plan Updates in the Age of Coronavirus

With the ever-increasing number of deaths in Europe and the U.S., many people are now doing what estate planning attorneys have advised them to do for years—get their estate plans in order. Many are having phone meetings or videoconferences with estate planning attorneys, says Barron’s in the article “The Coronavirus Has Americans Scrambling to Set Their Estate Plans. Here Are Some Key Things to Know.” People are worried, and they are in a hurry too.

However, estate planning can be complex, even when there is plenty of time to prepare. Here are a few tips:

Everyone should have three basic documents: a last will and testament, a durable power of attorney and an advance health care directive. These documents will allow assets to be distributed, give another person the ability to make financial decisions, if you are too sick to do so and also allow another person to talk to medical professionals on your behalf on treatment and care. These same documents are also a good idea for any young adults in the family, anyone older than 18 in most states.

With the proper documents prepared in accordance with the laws of your state, you may be able to avoid having a court appoint a guardian for minor children or having a probate court determine asset distribution.

However, there’s more. In addition to these basic documents, everyone needs to review their beneficiary designations on assets that include bank accounts, IRAs, annuities, insurance policies and any other assets. If family situations have changed, these may be out of date.

It’s also a good idea to have an attorney create a medical power of attorney for a minor child, in case another family member needs to take a child to the doctor, discuss their care and make decisions.

While young adults may be more worried about the financial impact of the pandemic, seniors and the elderly are concerned about having documents in order. Wealthy people are concerned about the impact that the pandemic may have on estate planning law, and some are engaged in planning to make substantial gifts, in case the current estate and give tax exemptions are lowered.

Other issues to be discussed with an estate planning attorney:

  • Irrevocable living trusts, which provide an opportunity to direct how assets in a trust will be held, invested and distributed before and after death.
  • Durable powers of attorney, which appoint an agent to make financial decisions.
  • Health-care surrogates, which let people designate a surrogate to make health decisions on their behalf and receive health care information from physicians.
  • Living wills, which allow people to designate whether to provide life-prolonging treatment, if in a terminal state.

Reference: Barron’s (March 22, 2020) “The Coronavirus Has Americans Scrambling to Set Their Estate Plans. Here Are Some Key Things to Know”

A Good Estate Plan Equals Peace of Mind and Peace in the Family

The problems aren’t always evident when the first parent passes. Often, it’s when the second parent becomes gravely ill, that lapses in estate planning become evident. For one family, everyone thought estate plans were all in place after their father died. When their mother suffered a stroke, the adult children learned that they had no access to her financial accounts or her health care directives. No one had thought to update the estate plan.

However, when one parent passes, the family needs to take action. That’s the lesson from the article “Avoid heartache and anxiety with estate planning” from Post Independent. In this case, the family never thought to modify or add anyone’s name to the financial accounts, power of attorney documents, medical power of attorney documents, or HIPAA consent forms. What often happens in these cases, is that family members start bickering about who was supposed to do what.

For those who have not taken the time to learn about estate planning, planning for end-of-life legal, financial and medical matters, the quarrels may be inevitable.

Estate planning is not just for wealthy families. If your aging loved one own property, stocks, bonds or any other assets, they need to have a will, advance directives, powers of attorney and possibly some trusts. Take the time to understand these documents now, before an urgent crisis occurs.

There are few formal courses that teach people about these matters, unless they go to law school. Nearly half of Americans age 55 and over don’t have a will, according to an article appearing in Forbes. Fewer than 20% of these people have health care directives and the proper types of powers of attorney in place.

When it comes to preparing for these matters, the laws are very specific about who can participate in health care and financial conversations and decisions.

Here are some of the documents needed for an estate plan:

  • Last Will and Testament
  • General, Limited and/or Durable Power of Attorney
  • Health Care Power of Attorney
  • Living Will
  • Advance Care Directive
  • HIPAA Consent Form

Preplanning will greatly assist family members and loved ones, so they know what medical and financial efforts you or your parents would want. Having the documents in order will also provide the family with the legal means of carrying out these wishes.

The legal documents won’t solve all problems. Your brother-in-law will still be a pain in the neck and your oldest sister may still make unrealistic demands. However, having these documents in place, will make the best of a bad situation.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to ensure that your estate plan, or your parent’s estate plan, is properly prepared. If someone has moved to another state, their estate plan needs to be updated to align with their new state’s laws.

Reference: Post Independent (November 3, 2019) “Avoid heartache and anxiety with estate planning”