Planning used to mean only planning for what happens once you die. Today, it is also
important to plan ahead and provide instructions for health care and asset decisions that
may have to be made by others while you are still alive. A complete estate plan will
include your will, health care instructions (including a living will, appointment of
health care agent, designation of conservator of your person, and designation of your
wishes as to anatomical gifts), a designation of conservator of your assets, a power of
attorney, and designations of guardians for your minor children. Let's look at each
of these important documents.
- Your Will provides how your assets will be distributed
upon your death. A Will makes sure your own personal wishes are carried out rather
than having state law determine who will inherit from you. A carefully planned Will
can also reduce taxes due at the time of your death by utilizing tax exemptions based upon
the beneficiaries inheriting your property --blood relatives or charities. A Will
can also reduce probate costs by waiving the bond for your executor and authorizing
certain actions of your executor without a probate hearing for approval.
- Health Care Instructions make your own personal wishes
known on various health care matters and speak for you when you cannot. This
document combines instructions to your personal physician or the hospital in one place so
that it is clear what decisions you want made and who you want to make them.
Although you may have difficulty making the choices necessary to complete your own Health
Care Instructions, your choices will ease the burdens of your family in making health care
decisions knowing that they will be doing things the way you would have wanted. The
choices made in Health Care Instructions fall into the following categories:
- First, there is a Living Will which provides that if
you are in the last stages of an incurable disease or permanently unconscious that you do
not wish to be kept alive by mechanical means, but instead that you be allowed to die with
dignity. Your Living Will provides that you be administered sufficient pain
medications and other comfort measures, but no artificial means can be used to keep you
alive. Your Living Will does not authorize the premature termination or taking of
your life, and it does not condone suicide measures.
- Secondly, you appoint a Health Care Agent as the person
designated to make sure your Living Will is given effect by your doctors and the hospital.
The Health Care Agent makes sure that the decision to terminate any life support
systems is made at the right time. By naming one person as the Health Care Agent,
your doctor and the hospital do not have to depend on the majority vote of your relatives
before they can put your Living Will into effect.
- Thirdly, you designate a Conservator of your Person in
the event the Probate Court must name someone to make health care decisions for you.
The Conservator is accountable to the Probate Court and will be given authority to
make all health care decisions, not only those having to do with your Living Will.
- Fourthly, you have the opportunity to indicate whether
or not you wish to make any anatomical gifts of your organs or body parts. You can
say "yes" or "no" but your wishes will be clear to everyone.
- Another important document is the Power of Attorney
where you can designate someone to act on your behalf while you are still alive.
When you sign a Power of Attorney you are giving someone else complete power to do
anything that you could do if you were personally present: everything from doing your
banking, selling your stocks or your home, or doing anything else. Since this is a
powerful document you must carefully select the person you are designating. There
are ways to limit the powers given or only authorize the person to act on your behalf if
you are incapacitated or some other condition has been met.
- An alternative to the Power of Attorney is the
designation of a Conservator of your Estate. A Conservator is appointed by and is
accountable to the Probate Court for all of your assets and how they are used, invested or
spent. The conservatorship process can be made to be less expensive if the
conservator's bond is waived in this document.
- Lastly, and most importantly if you have young
children, you may designate a Guardian for your minor children. There are many
considerations that must be considered, but you can express your wishes as to whom the
Probate Court should appoint to raise your children when both parents have died.
Also, you should consider the new Standby Guardianship procedure which is a simplified
procedure to name in advance a temporary guardian if certain specified conditions
occur. The Standby Guardian is often allowed to act immediately upon death (but is
limited by law to a limited period of 60 days), so important decisions can be made for the
children without going to Probate Court during that difficult time.
While the decisions necessary for your estate planning
may be difficult , once made there is a comprehensive plan for your family to follow.
Knowing your wishes very often eases the responsibilities faced by your loved ones
when death or a medical crisis arises The attorneys at Solomon, Krupnikoff & Wyskiel,
P.C. will be happy to review your own Will and other estate planning documents, offer
suggestions for changes or estate tax savings, and put into effect any of the documents
discussed in this article.