Make sure that you have the basic estate planning documents in place to protect yourself and your loved ones.
Planning your estate can definitely be overwhelming and it is tempting for many people to keep putting it off, however it is very important that everyone gets certain documents in place before a catastrophe happens. Even if you are worried about not being able to afford the perfect plan, it’s always better to at least get the basics in place, and then you can revise and replace things in the future as circumstances change. Of course if asked I would tell you there are other important tasks to complete, but if I had to narrow it down, I think these three things are the most essential to have in place.
1. Make sure you have your health care documents in place. Commonly referred to as Advanced Medical Directives, there are several documents that you can complete to document your wishes and give someone the authority to make decisions on your behalf if you are unable to make those decisions yourself. Some recommended documents include a Medical/Health Care Power of Attorney, and a Living Will.
The Medical/Health Care Power of Attorney is important because it allows you to choose who you would like to make your medical and health decisions, should you need someone to step into that role. Without this document, someone may need to go to court to gain this right, and it may end up being someone other than who you would have chosen yourself.
Through your living will, you can let your family and other important people know whether you want life sustaining treatment, plan to be an organ donor, and what kind of treatment you would want to alleviate pain or suffering.
Note that you can revoke or amend these documents at any time, but it is better to have them in place to reflect your current wishes, and then later amend, then to never have them and end up in the situation where the person you would have wanted to make decisions lacks the authority to step in and help.
2. Make sure you have completed directions for the Guardianship of your children. If you already have documents in place for this purpose, review them and make sure that they still reflect your wishes.
I have talked with several families who put off ALL of their estate planning because they had difficulty determining the appropriate guardian for their children, or simply could not agree. I hate to use scare tactics; however it would be incredibly stressful for your children if you do not complete this planning. A colleague of mine told me a story of a young couple who had moved to Colorado and had no family in town, yet had two small children. When the husband was on an international trip, the wife was seriously injured. While she was unable to care for her children, the State had to step in and take custody of the kids. Even though the couple had informally discussed with friends that they might be able to care for the children in the event of an emergency, they had no legally documented right to take temporary custody of the children, so the State was unable to release the children to them. The kids were in a temporary foster home until their distraught father could get back home.
This situation could be far worse if something happened to both parents. Without your wishes documented, extended family could fight over custody of the children, adding unneeded stress to an already devastating situation for the children.
3. Complete your Estate Planning. Stop putting it off, and make an appointment with a trusted estate planning attorney. Most people realize that eventually EVERYONE needs a will, trust, or other estate planning documents. As I mentioned above, you do not need to wait for all the stars to properly align in order to get the process started. Having your estate planning documents completed is not like getting a permission slip signed, where you have it done once and then you are good to go… forever. Your estate plan will inevitably evolve and change over the years as your family grows and your financial situation changes. It is important to establish a relationship with an estate planning attorney who be your partner in this evolution, and can not only provide guidance, but meet your needs at each phase of life. This should be a relationship, not simply a transaction, and clients should feel comfortable that the attorney they are working with is available to answer questions and make small changes to the plan, without having to start over from scratch. Realize that you are not simply buying a product – you are designing your ideal plan, and your attorney should work with you to refine your documents as your idea of ideal changes.