Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Are You Prepared?

Today I met with Jennifer Snyder, a lawyer in Hadley who works specifically in areas of end of life issues. She works a great deal with elders around passing on their estates and setting up their long term care plans, and that is pretty interesting stuff, but that is not what this post is about today. Today we are talking about the rest of her work with us young folks who think nothing bad will ever happen.

It is common and fairly reasonable for a young person such as myself to simply assume that life will continue on for many decades into the future without major incident. For the vast majority of 30-somethings, indeed, death is a far off concept. However, the unexpected can happen, and there are very important legal documents that a person should have in place in the event of catastrophe.

Before I go on, I should make it clear that I am not, in fact, a lawyer myself. I did not even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. I am simply sharing with you what I have learned from various sources, including a chat this afternoon. This post should not be considered legal advice, and if you are in the habit of taking legal advice from bloggers who do not even specify their industry of profession, I advise you (as a non-lawyer) to reconsider your legal advice strategy.

I will briefly explain what each of these documents is and what terrible thing could happen if you do not have them. For each of these, there are defaults, more or less, in the law, but some of the defaults are complex, and some are expensive, while most are not what you want them to be. These three documents are a "Health Care Proxy", "Durable Power of Attorney", and a will.

A Health Care Proxy is a document that specifies who is allowed to make health care decisions for you if you are incapacitated. There is probably someone that you would like to have this power. This person may not be you mother, and if you do not have a health care proxy, it could be your mother, or perhaps your father, or maybe your son, or it could be someone else. When you are in a coma is a bad time to be haggling over legal vagaries of who has the authority to decide if they should try to risky surgery, give you an Aspirin or just pray and hope for the best.

A Durable Power of Attorney gives someone the authority to make financial decisions for you in the event that you are incapacitated. Why would this be important? Let's imagine that you, in your excellent foresight, have disability insurance, which is sufficient to take care of the needs of your family, should you become disabled. Your chosen disability is that of a coma. Your husband goes to the bank to take out money to pay the mortgage, electric bill, etc with the money that is coming from the insurance policy that you had the wisdom to set up. The teller will politely explain, "I'm sorry sir, only your spouse has access to this account. If you want to access to it, you will have to hire a lawyer for $2500-$5000 and go to court to get a ruling that you can access this money." This assumes a very well educated teller, I suspect, but this whole interaction would go much better if your husband could show a document showing that he has Durable Power of Attorney, which would give him access to the money.

Finally, the will. You probably are familiar with the concept of a will. I specifies how your estate would be split in the event of your death. If you think that you don't have a will, you are mistaken. You do have a will, but the will is not written by you. It is written by the state in which you reside. Perhaps you trust the legislature in your particular state to plan your estate for you. Personally, I do not trust the folks in Boston to plan a lunch at McDonald's for me, but it's up to you.

Most specifically, if you have children, you want to have a will. Depending on your state's laws, if both you and your spouse die, your children could end up with your parents, or they could end up with your spouse's parents. They could end up in state custody while a fight occurs in the courts over who gets them. They could end up somewhere else. Wouldn't you rather be sure instead of trusting that things will hopefully turn out alright for everyone.

If you have these documents in place, good for you. You are well prepared. If you do not, I strongly suggest you consider getting them into place. There are many great lawyers out there, including Jennifer Snyder whom I met today. You could work with one of them. Have an allergy to lawyers that causes you to tear up and develop blotchy skin, at least find something online. I can't vouch for how good online forms are, but I can guarantee you that they are better than no form at all.

Thank you for reading my blog. Perhaps you found it informative. Perhaps you did not. Either way, don't forget to get up from your computer from time to time to go out and meet with other live human beings!

1 comment:

  1. Great post! I used to work in Elder Law and saw (and prepared) a lot of these simple yet very effective documents. Younger clients would get a Springing Durable Power of Attorney, which required a doctor to sign to indicate that the person was incapacitated. Older clients would go with a standard Durable Power of Attorney. We also did Living Wills. Even though they're not legal documents in Massachusetts, clients felt more comfortable having them to ease their loved ones' guilt if they needed to end life-saving measures.

    I can't even begin to stress how important it is to have a will, especially with children! One thing you can also do in your will is provide for your pets. In Massachusetts, pets are considered personal property, like furniture, but you can set up "pet trusts" to give someone money for caring for your pet if something happens to you. Like with naming guardians for your children, it's always a good idea to ask that person before you name him or her in your will.

    When it comes to any legal document, it's always best to have it prepared by a lawyer to make sure it meets legal requirements for your jurisdiction.

    None of this is legal advice, either. :)