Traditionally, estate planning has focused on minimizing estate taxes and directing the disposition of your assets after death. Today, managing your financial well-being often includes the potential need for long-term health care. If you were to sustain a debilitating illness, or become mentally incapacitated, which can occur gradually due to a progressive medical condition, or suddenly, from an unexpected accident, who would make your 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, in the event of your 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
Prior to becoming incapable of making important life decisions, a living will generally allows you to state your preferences regarding the giving or withholding of life-sustaining medical treatment. Although future changes to the law concerning this matter may occur, 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“terminal condition,” be in a “persistent vegetative state,” or be “permanently unconscious” before life-support can be withdrawn.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 physical or mental 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 usually inexpensive and easy to implement. They are essential estate planning tools for all individuals, regardless of age. Without such documents, court intervention, which can involve a great deal of time, expense, and stress for family members, 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 concerns, be sure to consult your team of professional advisors to fully understand the impact of advance directives.