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It is neither morbid, nor pessimistic to plan for what happens at the end of your life.  Having an estate plan is extremely beneficial and helpful to those you love.  Even if you don’t think you have enough of an “estate” to leave to one or more people, an executed estate plan lessens the burden on those you leave behind.  An estate plan consists of:

  • A living will and medical power of attorney – these are instructions for end of life care, and appointing someone to make medical decisions if you are unable to do so
  • Your last will and testament – a legal document which governs the distribution of your estate, relating to possessions and dependents
  • A financial power of attorney – grants someone of your choosing the authority to act on your behalf in financial matters

A living will is a written document that outlines how you should be cared for in an emergency or if you are not able to make medical decisions for yourself.  This is where you decide, ahead of time, about end of life treatments, and measures you may choose NOT to receive.  It is important to be as specific as possible, but also realize that you can’t predict every situation.  If something happens to you that you haven’t taken into consideration, your Medical Power of Attorney would step in and carry out your wishes.

A Medical Power of Attorney (also called a durable power of attorney for healthcare, or your “agent”, “proxy”, “attorney-in-fact”, “patient advocate”, or “surrogate”) is someone you appoint to make medical decisions for you in an emergency.  As stated earlier, not every situation will be covered by your living will.  The person you choose as your medical power of attorney will make decisions not covered in your living will.  But, they will not be able to go against what you have specifically chosen in your living will.  The Medical Power of Attorney’s job is to “fill in the gaps” of your living will, or make decisions in case your living will is invalidated for some reason.

A financial power of attorney is someone whom you choose to manage your finances as soon as you are unable to do so yourself.  The person you choose can legally manage the finances, financial decisions and transactions, and your property once you are incapacitated.  This person is legally obligated to make decisions consistent with the decisions you have already made, but they are given full authority to make their own choices.  The financial power of attorney does not apply to someone who has died.

Finally, your last will and testament is where you will state what happens to your possessions once you are deceased (your home, car, property).  Here you can designate your beneficiaries, usually your family, relatives, and close friends.  If you have minor children, you are able to choose a guardian to care for them in the event you and your spouse are both deceased.   You can also set up a trust for your children so that they are financially cared for until they reach an age of your choosing.  Finally, you will also choose an executor or personal representative of your will.  This person will carry out the legal and financial matters of your estate.  It is generally recommended to choose someone reliable, and who is organized.

When someone dies without having a valid last will and testament, he or she dies “intestate”, which means the state becomes the executor of the estate.  The state will distribute your estate based on a statutorily prescribed succession plan.   If there are children involved, the court can establish guardianship based on the best interests of the children.

Thinking through these issues, and executing a comprehensive estate plan is beneficial in many ways.  It will help those who are grieving your loss navigate your wishes in the easiest way possible, and has the potential to reduce conflict among your heirs and descendants. If you have questions about estate planning, or have minor children and want to establish a plan in the event you and/or your spouse pass away, give the attorneys at Bryan, diStefano & Mattingley, PLLP a call today.