A Yearly Reminder
Every so often it's important to give a reminder of the basic documents, what we can call legal tools that everyone needs. If we had a crystal ball and could see into the future, we would not need to plan ahead for end of life decisions. We have seen many clients through the years where a spouse had a sudden stroke making it impossible to communicate with the family. Neither the healthy spouse nor the children knew where to find financial or medical information. Besides having to locate important documents, the family is then left to make their own decisions about long term care and may have difficulty dealing with medical personnel or financial institutions because of privacy laws.
It is wise to put your important papers and your legal documents in one place. You could set up a file, put everything in a desk or dresser drawer, or just list the information and location of papers in a notebook. If your papers are in a bank safe deposit box, keep copies in a file at home and make sure some other family member has access to the box. And knows where it is. You don't need to tell them all your financial affairs, but someone should know where you keep your papers in case of emergency.
The two most important legal tools are and advance directive for health care decisions and a durable power of attorney. Advance directives are legal documents that state the what medical care or end of life decisions you want made on your behalf. It is a way for you to communicate your wishes to family or health care professionals. It is advisable to discuss this with family members while you are healthy. It's too late if you suddenly become incapacitated.
The Living Will gives your consent or refusal for sustained medical treatment when you are not able to give it yourself. Very often, healthy people tell me they "Don't want anything done". My response is to explain the difference between a Living Will and a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order. A DNR is appropriate for someone who has very little quality of life, has been through countless medical procedures, and simply wants to die without prolonging the inevitable due to extraordinary measures. In that case, the medical people will not give treatment if there is a medical crisis. The Living Will, on the other hand, won't prevent you from getting all the care medical people can give, until it is apparent that the efforts will not result in recovery, and at that time, the medical people will follow your wishes as stated in your Living Will and instructed by your Health Care Representative. Review your directives periodically. They do not expire, but your wishes may change. Be sure your family member or healthcare proxy has a current copy.
There are three categories of Power of Attorney. A General Power of Attorney authorizes someone to handle your financial, banking and possibly real estate and government benefits as long as you remain competent. A Special Power of Attorney authorizes someone you designate to handle certain things you cannot do yourself for a limited period of time, such as doing banking if you are out of the country. A Durable Power of Attorney means that the document will remain in effect if you become mentally incompetent.
In modern times with life spans greatly increased, along with the greater chance of dementia due to old age, almost everyone does a durable power of attorney. It is the "Durable" Power of Attorney that allows an agent to continue making decisions on your behalf no matter what happens to you. In many cases it may be the most important document you can have.
It is vital to have a power of attorney that can handle all eventualities you might face. For example, in Connecticut, unless you have special language in your power of attorney, and you become incapable, your spouse may not be able to transfer the house to herself in order to protect it.
As always the prudent course of action is to seek competent counsel in preparing these most vital documents.