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 If family situations have changed, these may be out of date.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”

Estate Planning Documents for a Natural Ending

If you want to control your demise, there are a handful of documents that are typically created during the process of developing an estate plan that can be used to achieve this goal, says the article “Choosing a natural end” from The Dallas Morning News.

The four documents are the Medical Power of Attorney, the Directive to Physicians, the Out-of-Hospital Do-Not-Resuscitate, and the In-Hospital Do-Not-Resuscitate. Note that every state has slightly different estate planning laws. Therefore, you will want to speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state. If you spend a lot of time in another state, you may need to have a duplicate set of documents created. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help.

For the Medical Power of Attorney, you are appointing an agent to make health care decisions, if you cannot. This may include turning off any life-support systems and refusing life-sustaining treatment. Talk with the person you want to take on this role and make sure they understand your wishes and are willing and able to carry them out.

You have the right to change your agent at any time.

The Directive to Physicians is a way for you to let physicians know what you want for comfort care and any life-sustaining treatment in the event you receive a diagnosis of a terminal or irreversible health condition. You aren’t required to have this, but it is a good way to convey your wishes. The directive does not always have to be the one created by the facility where you are being treated, and it may be customized to your wishes, as long as they are within the bounds of law. Many people will execute a basic directive with their estate planning documents, and then have a more detailed directive created when they have a health crisis.

The Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) forms come in two different forms in most states. Unlike the Directive to Physicians, the DNR must be signed by your attending physician. The Out-of-Hospital DNR is a legally binding order that documents your wishes to health care professionals acting outside of a hospital setting not to initiate or continue CPR, advanced airway management, artificial ventilation, defibrillation or transcutaneous cardiac pacing. You need to sign this form, but if you are not competent to do so, a proxy or health care agent can sign it.

The In-Hospital DNR instructs a health care professional not to attempt CPR, if your breathing or heart stops. It is issued in a health care facility or hospital and does not require your signature. However, the physician does have to inform you or make a good faith effort to inform a proxy or agent of the order.

If you would prefer not to spend your final days or hours hooked up to medical machinery, speak with your estate planning attorney about how to legally prepare to protect your wishes.

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (Jan. 12, 2020) “Choosing a natural end”

Key Health Document Most Americans Don’t Have but Should

You may not like the idea of contemplating your own mortality, or that of a loved one. You may procrastinate all year long about putting your final wishes in place. However, this one document is important for yourself, your loved ones and your life. You shouldn’t put it off any longer. Forbes’ recent article titled “Two-Thirds of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document” explains why.

A health care directive is a legal document that an individual will use to give specific directions for caregivers, in case of dementia or illness. It directs end of life decisions. It also gives directions for how the person wishes their body to be cared for after their death.

This document is known by several different names: living wills, durable health care powers of attorney or medical directives. However, the purpose is the same: to give guidance and direction on making medical and end-of-life decisions.

This document itself is a relatively new one. The first was created in California in 1976, and by 1992, all fifty states had similar laws. The fact that the law was accepted so fast across the country, indicates how important it is. The document provides control when a person is impaired and after their death. That is at the heart of all estate planning.

Yet just as so many Americans don’t have wills, only a third have a health care directive. That’s a surprise, since both estate planning attorneys and health care professionals regularly encourage people to have these documents in place.

A key part of a health care directive is selecting an agent. This is a person who will act as the proxy to make decisions for another person, consistent with their wishes. They will also have to advocate for the person with respect to having treatment continue or shifting to pain management and palliative care. The spouse is often the first choice for this role. An adult child or other close and trusted family or friends can also serve.

The agent’s role does not end at death but continues to ensure that post-mortem wishes are carried out. The agent takes control of the person’s body, making sure that any organ donations are made, if it was the person’s wish.

Once any donation wishes are carried out, the agent also makes sure that funeral wishes are done according to the person’s wishes. Burial is an ancient tradition, but there are many different choices to be made. The health care directive can have as many details as possible, or simply state burial or cremation.

Having a health care directive in place permits an individual to state his or her wishes clearly. Talk with your estate planning attorney about creating a health care directive as part of your comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: Forbes (December 13, 2019) “Two-Thirds of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document”