Assuming that estate planning is all about what happens after you die is a common mistake. Indeed, a Will and likely a Trust will be part of your estate plan, but as relevant are other essential documents.
This article is designed to introduce to you some of the smaller, but essential estate planning documents that address issues while you are alive.
Financial Durable General Power of Attorney.
Life is unpredictable. Any number of things could result in your being incapacitated for hours, days, weeks or even years. Should you be involved in a car accident or have a health issue that leaves you unable to manage your assets, who will step in to help? Each state recognizes your right to name an Agent with the power to control your financial affairs. This nomination is typically done with a document called a Durable General Power of Attorney.
Durable refers to the powers being granted carrying on even if you are incapacitated.
General refers to the document being a broad grant of powers. For example, most include the ability to manage funds, sell assets, hire professionals such as lawyers and accountants and gather your private information.
If you were incapacitated this document allows you to select the person who manages your affairs. Without the document, your family is forced to Petition the court to have you declared incapacitated. A judge then appoints a guardian. This person might not be a family member but could as easily be someone you have ever met. By working with an estate planning lawyer to create a Durable General Power of Attorney, you get to select your Agent, and you save the expense of a Guardianship hearing.
Sharing a copy of your Financial Power of Attorney poses risks. The document is valid the moment you sign it, and photocopies or electronic scans are valid. So, if you give your Agent a copy you can never be sure you have received all copies back again should you have a falling out. Our clients usually leave the original in our Will safes along with instructions to provide the Agent with a copy should the client ever become incapacitated. This way the documents are ready to use, but not available unless needed.
Living Will or Medical Power of Attorney.
A Medical Power of Attorney appoints the person who has the specific power to make medical decisions for you should you become incapacitated. This document will likely include a description of your wishes regarding removing all medical care (the Living Will).
When selecting your Surrogate, make sure you spend the time to share your medical philosophy. Your Surrogate is supposed to make the same decision you would make given the situation. If you don’t share your thoughts, there is no way the Surrogate can act.
Because your Surrogate might need to use your Medical Power of Attorney quickly, it is wise to provide him with an electronic copy. He can keep the copy on his phone or in an email where he can access it at any time and from any location. Unlike the Durable General Power of Attorney, having a copy of the Medical Power of Attorney does not grant the right to empty bank accounts, so there is less danger of any abuse.
Temporary Guardianship for Minor Children.
Your Will might name a guardian for your children should you die, but who takes them home from the hospital should you be alive but unconscious? Further, if you are unconscious from a car accident, which approves medical care for your minor children? These situations are where a Temporary Guardianship document works best.
Providing a copy of this to the appointed Guardian is essential. The named guardian only has power if you are incapacitated, so there is no danger of abuse, but by having a copy your Guardian can arrive on short notice and take custody of your children in what is likely a terrifying situation.
In conclusion, estate planning documents are not only Wills and Trusts. Make sure you cover all the essential materials with your Estate Planning Lawyer.