Traditionally, estate planning has focused on minimizing estate taxes and directing the disposition of your assets after death. Today, managing your affairs often includes the issue of long-term health care. What would happen if you were to experience a debilitating illness or become incapable of managing your own affairs? Such a situation could occur gradually, due to a progressive medical condition, or suddenly, due to an unexpected accident or illness. If such an event were to happen, who would make important legal, financial, and health care decisions and on what authority?
Fortunately, advance directives-legal instructions that express your wishes regarding financial and health care decisions in the event that you become incapacitated-can provide much-needed direction under such circumstances.
Legal and Financial Decisions
A durable power of attorney
grants authority to a designated person to make legal and financial decisions on your behalf, even in the event of mental incapacity. The powers granted can be broad or limited in scope. Your designated power of attorney can assist you with your personal finances, insurance policies, government benefits, estate plans, retirement plans, and business interests.
Health Care Decisions
A living will
generally allows you to state your preferences, prior to incompetency, regarding the giving or withholding of life-sustaining medical treatment. In most states, you must have a "terminal condition," be in a "persistent vegetative state," or be "permanently unconscious" before life-support can be withdrawn. The definition of these terms and the medical conditions covered may vary from state to state.
A health care proxy allows you to appoint an agent to make health care decisions on your behalf in the event of incapacity. These medical decisions are not limited to those regarding artificial life-support.
Advance directives by durable power of attorney, living will, or health care proxy are generally inexpensive and easy to implement. They are essential estate planning tools for all individuals, regardless of age. Without such documents, court intervention, which potentially involves a great deal of time, expense, and stress, may be necessary.
To learn more about state-specific advance directives, visit Caring Connections, a program of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, at www.caringinfo.org. As with all estate planning issues, be sure to consult your team of professional advisors about the impact of advance directives.