Medical directive document in a clipboardMy earlier post on powers of attorney forms touched heavily on the issue of incapacity.  The specific question addressed by a power of attorney form is, “who will make my financial decisions and handle my financial affairs if I am unable to do so on my own?”  If a person becomes incapacitated and does not have a power of attorney form on file, it is possible that a conservatorship will have to be created to manage the finances of that person.  This is incredibly expensive and creates much unnecessary heartache for those who wish to care for their loved one; this mess can be prevented for a fraction of the cost and trouble by appointing an attorney-if-fact with a properly executed power of attorney form.

Not all decisions that must be made for an incapacitated person are financial, of course. Though care for finances is certainly important, who will decide which medications can be administered?  Who will have access to health care documents and records?  Who will get to decide if the you should be cared for in a hospital or in an assisted living facility?  Should you be visited by clergy?  What decisions should be made about life support?  Importantly, once you appoint someone to make these decisions for you, how will they understand your beliefs and values so he or she makes the right decisions?  All of these questions can be addressed by creating a valid health care directive (sometimes called a living will or an advanced directive).

Your Health Care Agent

Your health care directive is where you can appoint a person whom you trust to make the right decisions about your health care.  This person can be a spouse, family member, a close friend, or even a professional fiduciary.  It’s usually best that the person be local; if you are in Minnesota and your health care agent is in California, that person may have a tough time meeting and talking with the professionals who are providing your care.  You can (and should) also name a back-up health care agent who can act if your first choice is unable or unwilling to accept the appointment.  Married couples often (but not always) name each other as their primary health care agents, then selected a trusted sibling or parent to be the back-up.

Your Values in Print

Your health care agent will be empowered to make health care decisions on your behalf.  But what do you want them to do?  Fortunately, you can outline your wishes in your directive.  Your health care directive can specify your thoughts on life support — perhaps you wish to be kept on life support indefinitely.  Perhaps you wish that your medical professionals exhaust all reasonable means to help you recover, but you don’t want to be kept alive artificially if in their professional opinion you will not regain consciousness.  Maybe you do not want certain pain medications; perhaps you have specific wishes for clergy or other individuals to be present.  Maybe you want to have a therapy animal present when possible.  Your health care directive can provide as much information to your health care agent as you wish.

More Important Than a Will?   

I often tell my clients that a power of attorney document and a health care directive — together — are oftentimes even more important than a will because we are more likely to need these documents.  Most people have a better chance of becoming incapacitated temporarily at some point in their lives than they do of dying prematurely.  Many people recall the case of Terry Schiavo, a very sad story of a young woman whose family could not agree on whether she should be pulled from life support.  A properly executed health care directive can put your wishes in writing and avoid much family tension and heartache.

Your Plan

I often call a power of attorney form and a health care directive “everybody documents,” since really, everyone over the age of eighteen should have one.  And of course, any estate plan is not complete without incapacity planning.  A health care directive and a power of attorney form, when properly drafted and executed, can ensure you’ll receive the care you deserve in a manner that is controlled by you and is easier on your family.  Many attorneys will include these documents automatically when they draft a will or trust plan.  Please contact me if I can help.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

Keywords: trusts and estates, Minnesota wills, revocable trusts, estate attorney, probate, estate planning

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Before my grandfather passed away, he suffered for years from severe dementia;  during his last few years he rarely understood where he was or who was around him. He wasn’t a rare case in this regard . . . worldwide, over thirty-five million people have dementia, and there are over seven million new cases each year. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, and was certainly a cause of my grandfather’s.

When most people think of estate planning, the first document that comes to mind is usually a will. A will is a document that expresses your wishes about the property you own in your own name at the time of your death. If properly written and properly executed, your will is used to guide the court proceedings — collectively called probate — which allow your executor to distribute your things to your beneficiaries. But estate planning isn’t just about distributing your things . . . it’s also about minimizing the problems and complications that affect your family. This includes planning for incapacity, which is any period where you are physically unable to make decisions for yourself.

What happens if you don’t have a valid power of attorney form?  he answer is “nothing good.” If there is no one authorized to sign documents for you, then the court will have to appoint a conservator to act on your behalf. This is incredibly expensive; a conservatorship proceeding will run into the thousands of dollars. A power of attorney form will cost a small fraction of that amount.

There are two documents most commonly associated with incapacity planning.  The first, which will be covered by my next blog post, is a health care directive. A health care directive appoints someone (called your health care agent) to make health care decisions on your behalf when you are unable to do so. The other incapacity planning form is a power of attorney form, which is a form you sign to authorize another person (called your attorney in fact) to make financial decisions for you.

There are a number of types of power of attorney forms; the most common is a durable power of attorney, which allows your attorney in fact to make decisions for you now and after you become incapacitated. In Minnesota, there are two types of durable power of attorney forms: a statutory form and a common law form. The biggest difference between the two if someone refuses to accepts a properly drafted and executed statutory form, that person or organization can be subject to criminal and civil penalties. This is the reason most estate planners use the statutory form as their default power of attorney form.

A word of caution: once you have signed your durable power of attorney form, your attorney in fact is able to begin signing on your behalf immediately. This can be incredibly convenient if you are travelling or if you and your spouse are living in separate states due to a move or a job change. It can also be great if you have a child who has recently left to go to college and you want to be able to continue to sign their financial documents for them.  But you should make sure you appoint someone you trust, implicitly. A durable power of attorney is sometimes sardonically referred to as a “license to steal,” since appointing someone untrustworthy to manage your affairs gives them the power to do just that.  A springing power of attorney is a document that only takes effect at your incapacity; this form is not available in statutory form.

You should keep all of your estate planning documents in a safe place where people know to find them (your power of attorney form will be of little use if your attorney in fact is unable to locate it). Contact a qualified attorney to talk about incapacity planning; your family will thank you. As always, I’m here to help.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

Keywords: trusts and estates, Minnesota wills, revocable trusts, estate attorney, probate, estate planning

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