None of us wants to think about death, illness, or incapacity. However, since we know that at least one of these will visit us and our families at some point (death), why not get prepared? The reality is that these things happen, often unexpectedly, and many are unprepared, even when they know better. A lack of preparation can put yourself and/or your family members in a position of having to react to a situation, perhaps in distress, when thoughts are not clear and time is of the essence. This does NOT have to be the case. I urge you to be proactive by doing the following:
Get a will! If you don't have one, get one, so you control where your assets go. If you have a will, review it and revise if necessary. If your marital circumstances have changed, revise your will. If you have children, make sure you have provided for their care/custody in the event something happens to you (or you AND your spouse) or the child's other parent (if not/never married). Make sure you have provided for the management of any money or property you are leaving your children (in the event they are still minors at your death).
If you own real estate or other property (such as bank accounts), find out how they are titled. Jointly or with right of survivorship (it will say so in the title paperwork)? If titled as such, these items will pass to the survivor regardless of any stipulations in a will. You need to understand that. Think you don't have an estate? Think again. Think about your bank accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance, home, etc. Your particular circumstances may require additional documents; however, at a minimum... GET A WILL.
Get a POA! Someone you trust must be able to act on your behalf if you can't. If you have a general power of attorney, and you become incapacitated, it is null and void. Make sure you have what is called a durable power of attorney. This will withstand any incapacitation. You must ensure that there is someone who can manage your affairs if something unforeseen should happen (you get deathly sick, car accident, stroke, etc.). Note: this terminates at your death and at that point whoever you've named in your will as your executor takes over to manage your estate.
Get an Advanced Directive for Healthcare! The Advanced Directive for Healthcare combines the Healthcare Power of Attorney and the Living Will. Don't put the burden on your family to decide what to do if you become unconscious or are left in a vegetative state due to some accident. Do you want life support or no life support? Do you desire cremation or burial? Who will make decisions regarding your healthcare if you can't? All of these things can be hashed out in the Advanced Directive so that it is CLEAR what your desires are.
Bottom line, it is important to start working now to get your financial/legal house in order. This can potentially save you heartache in the future and can give you peace of mind. Unfortunately, far too often, I am called to resolve issues that could have been avoided with one or all of the documents mentioned above.
Deborah Stewart, Esq.