A good estate plan is every bit as useful during your lifetime as it is at your death. No matter your age or how much (or how little) money you have, there are three essential estate planning documents you should have: advance medical directives, a durable power of attorney , and a will. While a will spells out your wishes concerning who gets your stuff when you die, your advance medical directives and a durable power of attorney ensures that the person of your choosing can make decisions for you, if need be, during your life.
1. Advance Medical Directives
Your advance medical directives are just that: instructions related to your health care. Typically, there are two main elements of advance medical directives: a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care.
A living will outlines your medical care preferences at the end of your life. If you wish to decline invasive medical interventions which only serve to prolong the dying process, your living will is the place to state your preference. A living will could have prevented years of legal disputes for Terri Schiavo’s family.
While a living will states your medical instructions for the end of your life only, in a durable medical power of attorney you appoint an individual–an agent–who can make medical decisions on your behalf during your lifetime. A durable power of attorney for healthcare will typically grant your agent the right to access your medical information, sign medical waivers, and employ health care providers on your behalf.
2. Durable Power of Attorney
A Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) is a powerful document in which you name an individual(s) to serve on your behalf to manage your finances and your property. Whomever you name as your “agent” must act in your best interest and make decisions as you would for yourself. For example, your agent can pay your bills, change your address, manage your finances, deal with your real estate, and hire other professionals (such as an accountant or attorney) to serve you.
A durable power of attorney is special in that, if you are ever incapacitated, your agent is still empowered to serve on your behalf. In fact, this is exactly when you want someone you know and trust making decisions for you. For example, if you were to be injured in an accident and unable to physically get around like you used to, or if you had a mental illness, or perhaps you were simply travelling for a few weeks, the person you name as your agent can transact business on your behalf.
A will is a document in which you designate how you want your assets transferred after your death and who is in charge of overseeing the transfer of your assets to your heirs. Taking the time to get your estate plan in order is one of the last ways you can show your family that you loved them. If you die without a will, your state’s intestacy laws will determine who gets your stuff…and it likely won’t be transferred in the way you wanted it to.
Your will can spell out your instructions: for example, if you have young children, who should serve as their guardian and who do you want taking care of their finances? If you have any desire to give to your favorite charity or to give a gift to your friends, you can be sure the state will not be aware of it–unless you have a will.
Another common tool for distributing your estate is to have a ‘pourover will’ with a living trust. A pourover will simply transfers all of your property into a trust at your death. The trust then serves as the instrument for distributing your assets at your death.
All of these documents are highly customizable. You do not have to appoint the same person to be your children’s guardian and to serve as your agent for health care decisions – it’s completely up to you.
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