Estate planning is the process of planning for death or incapacity through documents such as Wills, Durable Powers of Attorney, and Living Wills. Estate planning is an essential task that all adults should do because it allows a person to have control over their health care, property, and other decisions when they are no longer able to do so.
The most important estate planning documents that everyone should have no matter their situation are the three documents listed below.
A Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) allows you to appoint another person to make health care and financial decisions for you while you are alive but unable to do so for yourself. This is the single most important estate planning document you can have because it has a direct effect on you during your lifetime. The DPOA allows for a person of your choosing to step in and make health care and financial decisions for you when you no longer have mental capacity. Health care decisions can include making decisions about medical treatment, including withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment; speaking with medical professionals; and obtaining confidential medical information. Financial decisions include management of financial accounts, paying bills, managing property, taking legal action, and more.
An Advanced Directive (Living Will) is an end of life document that specifies any comfort measures or life-sustaining treatment a person wants should they become permanently unconscious and will not recover. This is a document that only kicks in when you are in a vegetative (brain dead) state. It allows you to indicate to doctors things you do or do not want in that situation, such as artificial nutrition (feeding tube) or hydration (IV fluid).
A Will allows for the transfer of a person’s property to loved ones and paying off debts when that person passes away. Having a Will allows you to choose who gets to inherit from you. Without a Will, state law dictates who inherits from you, which may be against your wishes.
Be sure to have the difficult discussions.
Another significant part of estate planning is having difficult discussions with your family about your end-of-life wishes. These are not easy conversations, but they are essential. You want to make sure your family knows what you want and do not want. These documents are very important and need to be implemented with clear instructions to your family.
Unfortunately, estate planning is not a one-and-done task. Documents must be changed periodically as different life events occur. Life changes that can affect estate planning documents include: birth of a child, inheriting property, death of a spouse or child, getting married, becoming disabled or diagnosed with a serious disease, etc. There are also periodic changes to estate planning laws, which can sometimes result in old documents not being valid under today’s laws. It is a good idea to have your documents reviewed by an estate planning attorney at least every 10 years.