Estate Planning Basics: Planning for Life (And for Possible Incapacity)
Though it is difficult to contemplate, we all know we will die sometime and generally we do not get to choose that time. It is also likely that we will need help with our finances, health related matters, or to provide for the care of our loved ones. Careful planning can give us some control over the circumstances of our care and treatment and can ensure that our loved ones understand our wishes and have the power to carry them out.
Advance Medical Directives: Most states prescribe forms to tell physicians, caregivers and loved ones how we wish to be treated in the event we have a terminal illness or cannot make medical decisions ourselves. In Virginia this document is the Advance Medical Directive. Both the Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney are combined in one document. If carefully prepared in advance, this document can ensure that your choices are carried out – even if you cannot speak or make your wishes known.
The Living Will (or health care declaration) portion of the document authorizes the provision, withholding or withdrawal of life-prolonging procedures in the event you have a terminal condition, your death is imminent, or you are in a persistent vegetative state or coma. You can direct the specific treatments and procedures you do, and do not, want administered.
The Health Care Power of Attorney portion appoints someone you trust as your agent to make medical decisions for you in the event you are not competent to do so yourself. While you are competent you continue to make choices for your own care. If you become incompetent, however, your agent can step in to make decisions in your best interest, taking into account your medical information, wishes, beliefs and values. If you wish to be an organ donor those instructions can be included in the document as well.
Durable Do Not Resuscitate Orders: Despite your direction in Advance Medical Directives, emergency medical services personnel are required to attempt to resuscitate all patients in cardiac or respiratory arrest if they are called in an emergency and a Do Not Resuscitate Order is not available. This is true in all 50 states! If you or a loved one suffers from a serious medical condition and you do not want to have cardiopulmonary resuscitation, you must ask your physician to sign a Do Not Resuscitate Order. Only a physician can authorize this.
General Durable Financial Power of Attorney: A General Durable Financial Power of Attorney authorizes someone you choose to make financial and legal decisions for you. This is a written legal document that can be revoked by you at any time and terminates upon your death. It allows your agent to handle most of your affairs, including writing checks on your accounts, filing tax returns and collecting various benefits, such as Social Security and pensions.
The key to both medical and financial powers of attorney is to select someone you trust completely to follow your wishes and act in your best interest. This may be a family member, close friend, or a trusted professional such as an attorney, accountant, or other advisor. It is also critical that you talk with your agent in advance and discuss how you wish to be treated if you cannot make decisions yourself.