Many of my posts so far have focused on what some may consider “higher level” estate planning; but, what about the estate plan foundation that everyone needs? In this three part series, I am going to briefly cover the fundamentals and foundation of estate planning and some of what I typically go through with a client during an initial estate planning meeting:
Part 1 – Last Wills & Testaments and Powers of Attorney
Part 2 – Basic Probate Avoidance Strategies
Part 3 – Joint Revocable Living Trusts
There are three fundamental and “foundational” estate planning documents that every single person age 18 and older should have: 1) a Durable Power of Attorney; 2) a Healthcare Power of Attorney; and 3) a Last Will & Testament. The two Powers of Attorney govern your affairs prior to your death, while the Last Will & Testament governs your affairs after your death.
Generally speaking, as soon as a person turns 18 years old they no longer have a designated person to make decisions for them. That is why it is important, no matter if you are 18 or 80 years old, to have both a Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) and Healthcare Power of Attorney (HCPOA) to designate an individual(s) to make decisions for you if you are unable to do so yourself.
You designate a person(s) to handle your financial affairs in a Durable Power of Attorney. Most DPOAs are very broad, giving the person you designated broad authority to handle your financial affairs – for instance, managing your bank accounts, paying your bills, managing your assets, filing your tax returns, etc. However, you can limit this authority if you wish to. Additionally, a DPOA can either be immediate or springing. An immediate DPOA is effective immediately, while a springing DPOA is effective only after you are determined to be incompetent or incapacitated and unable to handle your own financial affairs.
You designate a person(s) to handle your healthcare decisions in a Healthcare Power of Attorney. It is important to understand that, like the springing DPOA, a HCPOA is only effective if you are incapacitated and unable to make decisions for yourself; if you can make decisions for yourself, those decisions will control. Generally, a HCPOA grants your healthcare agent with a general authority to make healthcare decisions for you; for example, that you have shared your wishes with this person and that this person will honor those wishes and do what is in your best interests. However, typically some of the more “hot button” issues are covered specifically in the HCPOA. For instance, whether your agent may consent to mental health treatment, long term nursing home care, removing your feeding tube, and if you are pregnant, whether or not they may still make decisions for you.
Also, typically included in a HCPOA is a Living Will and HIPAA consent; although, these may be in separate documents as well. The Living Will is where you detail your wishes if you are in a coma, vegetative state, etc.; for example, whether or not you want every life saving measure taken to prolong your life or if you want the proverbial so-called “plug pulled.” HIPAA consent is where you consent to certain people having access to your medical records.
Without either or both of these Powers of Attorney, if you are determined to be incompetent or incapacitated and unable to handle your own affairs, a court will have to be petitioned to appoint someone to handle your affairs. This is time consuming, costly and the person appointed may not be the person you would have chosen to handle your affairs. Take for instance the Terri Schiavo case. Most people remember this case; it is where Terri Schiavo’s husband and parents argued for nearly 15 years on what she may or may not have wanted. Terri was in a vegetative state and her husband had petitioned the court to remove her feeding tubes, while her parents petitioned the court to keep her alive. Terri had no living will; therefore, it was up to a court to make the decision for her based on what they thought she would have wanted. It took 15 years! And, who knows if the court got it right. This is not the only case like this, it happens more often than you think. Save your family the trouble and burden of having to petition the court to make these decisions for you, contact a professional today to draft you the necessary Powers of Attorney.
Your Powers of Attorney will no longer be effective once you die. This is where your Last Will & Testament comes in and governs who handles your affairs (in some instances). I want to take this opportunity to clear up one of the biggest misconceptions I hear when it comes to Wills – A Will governs your estate, meaning that it details how your estate is going to be settled in probate, for instance, who is going to manage and administer your estate, who your estate is going to be divided among, who you want to be appointed guardian of any minor children, etc. The key word there was “probate.” Many people think that if you have a Will, you avoid probate. That is not true. Additionally, many people believe that all of your assets will be governed by or “go through” your Will when you die. That is also not true. In Part 2 of this series I will talk about the different strategies to avoid probate. And, if you implement one of these probate avoidance strategies, your Will will NOT control who inherits those assets when you die, the document you used to avoid probate will. This is very important to remember.
It is important for you to have a Will for many reasons. The three primary reasons for most individuals are: 1) you designate the person you want to administer your estate, 2) you designate the people or organizations that you want to inherit your estate (and how they inherit it) and 3) you designate the individuals you want appointed as the guardian of your minor children. If you do not have a Will, the court will have to designate a person to administer your estate and to be guardian of your minor children. This is not only time consuming and costly, the court may choose someone who you may not have chosen. And, the State, via its intestacy statute, will choose who will inherit your estate and when and how they inherit it. The intestacy statute is based on who the State thinks you would have wanted to inherit your estate if you had a Will. Again, this may not be the individuals you wanted to inherit your estate, and even if it was, you may have wanted to put some restrictions on and/or have some control over when and how they inherit it. The probate process can be long and costly enough with a Will, save your family the extra trouble and burden of having to probate your estate without a Will, contact an attorney today to draft your Last Will & Testament.
Any plan starts with a good and solid foundation, and that includes your estate plan. The estate planning documents that every person needs for a good and solid foundation is a Durable Power of Attorney, a Healthcare Power of Attorney and a Last Will & Testament. Until you have these, any other estate planning strategies may be fruitless and/or supported by a weak foundation. Make sure to check out Part 2 (Probate Avoidance) and Part 3 (Trusts) of this series when I post them. And, lastly, like with any topic I blog about, I am only scratching the surface of these topics, you must contact a professional in order to fully consider how these estate planning strategies will play out in your individual circumstances.
I hope this helps!
© 2015 Matthew D. Brehmer and Crummey Estate Plan.