When you are an adult or you experience a major life change, such as getting married or having a child, you should probably look at your Estate Plan documents (or create some, if you don’t have any yet). You might think, “I’m 26; I don’t have an estate!”
While you probably don’t want to think about the end of your life and hope that it’s far away, it is kind to your family to formalize a plan. You don’t want your parents, your spouse, or your child to be in trouble if anything happens to you. Also, the situations that require an estate plans are often unpredictable, so it is better to make one now even though it might feel premature.
This short series will look at three big-picture questions to ask yourself before you sit down with a lawyer to draw up estate documents.
Instead of thinking morbidly about the end of your life, use this as an exercise to think about your loved ones and how you can prepare to ease a difficult time for them.
Today’s question: What if something happens to me and I am not able to make decisions for myself?
First, someone will need to be able to make financial decisions for you so your bills will be paid (and on time). You can set up this ability, called a power of attorney, to only start if something happens to you. If you set up the power of attorney ability right now, the person named will be able to make decisions for you right now. You might not mind that, but then again, you might not yet want anyone else to sign documents on your behalf.
Instead, you can have this power of attorney be “springing,” that is, it will begin only if you are incapacitated or unable to make decisions yourself. This power of attorney should also be “durable,” which means that if you are incapacitated, the other person will be able to act on your behalf as a fiduciary without asking for permission for their decisions (since, by definition, you will be unable to give them permission to act).
If you change your mind in the meantime, you are able to revoke this power or change the terms. Ask your lawyer for more details and recommendations.
Second, someone will need to be able to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to make them for yourself.
Often, people choose their spouse as the decision-maker in those cases. In a document called an Advance Medical Directive you can also lay out the type of care you would want to receive in a dire situation or one in which doctors are not sure what quality of life you would have if they were to medically prolong it.
Giving directions about your desires before you are in a situation that requires hard decisions to be made will make the process easier for your loved ones. Even with good directions, it is often crucial to have someone who makes the final call for you, enabled by power of attorney.
Obviously, choose a person (or people) you trust for these jobs, and talk to whomever you choose before you sign them up for a duty they do not expect.
A good lawyer who specializes in estate planning will be able to take your requests and translate them from plain English into their legal document equivalent.
Photo by Joshua Earle used under Creative Commons Zero license.