What would happen if you were in a terrible accident today and landed in the hospital, seriously injured and unable to speak for yourself? It’s the kind of scenario that no one wants to think about, but could happen to anyone. That’s why it makes sense for all adults to complete some basic, essential estate planning documents.
Wills and trust documents say a lot about what you want to happen to your assets after you die, so people might not get around to creating them until they have some money and/or dependents. But the following essential estate planning documents are things even 18-year-olds can and should have. They provide legal protections that allow your loved ones to speak for you, should that ever be necessary.
Checklist of Essential Estate Planning Documents
Health Care Proxy
A health care proxy is a simple form that allows you to name someone to make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re incapacitated. In cases of serious injury or illness, your doctors should ask your proxy (“Agent”) to make decisions about things like whether to try a particular kind of treatment. A health care proxy form should also ask for at least one alternate person who can act as Agent if the first person isn’t available. Choose people who are familiar with your wishes around things like life support, since they can accept or refuse life-saving treatment on your behalf.
A health care proxy form also asks about your wishes around organ donation.
Power of Attorney
A power of attorney is used to name someone (your “attorney-in-fact”) to handle your financial business if you’re unable to. Your attorney-in-fact can do things like access your accounts to pay your bills and communicate with the IRS on your behalf. People often complete a power of attorney when they’re in the military and preparing to serve abroad, but you could also need one on file if you’re incapacitated unexpectedly.
A HIPAA authorization form isn’t something that everyone has as part of their estate plan. It’s extra protection in case you’re hurt or sick and want your doctors to be free to share medical information with your loved ones.
This form serves a slightly different purpose than your health care proxy. The proxy form authorizes your Agent to receive information about your condition if you’re unable to speak for yourself. A HIPAA authorization form has broader scope. You can give permission to healthcare organizations to disclose some or all of your medical information to one or more people, not just the person you’re trusting to make decisions. This just makes it easier for everyone to stay in the loop if you’re ever incapacitated. This kind of document may be especially useful in non-traditional families, since healthcare providers may not be able to release information to anyone other than a legal spouse or blood relative without your written permission.
Advance Care Directive/Living Will
It’s common to hear people use the terms advance care directive, personal directive and living will interchangeably. These forms are where you can share your wishes about many elements of end-of-life care and life-sustaining care. Your living will is highly customizable, so you can share as much information as you want about any views, beliefs and requests that may be relevant if you’re incapacitated. Your doctors have no legal requirement to follow what you request. But your living will may help guide them and your Agent to make the decisions you would want them to make.
Final Thoughts on Estate Planning Documents
Unlike wills and trusts, these essential estate planning documents are simple to create. You probably don’t need to consult an attorney or other advisors. Just write down everything that you want to write, have forms notarized if necessary and hand out copies to anyone who might need to know about your documents. States have created their own printable estate planning document templates to make this easy. (That said, you can always talk to your estate planning advisors about any document questions that come up.)
Revisit your estate planning documents annually to make sure that your written wishes still reflect what you want. Update forms whenever circumstances change with someone you’ve named as an agent or backup. Someone who moves out of the country or starts experiencing dementia isn’t going to be an ideal health care proxy. Keep those documents updated with at least three local, trusted agents named in each one.
Need Specific Help with Estate Planning?
Check out our full estate planning Ebook for more comprehensive information about all the topics that might come up during your estate planning process. And if you need help creating or updating your essential estate planning documents, our advisors are always here to help. Contact us today.
Stephen P. Ahern, CPA/PFS, CFP®, AEP®, MST provides individual financial, investment, estate and tax planning and small business consulting to a diverse base of clients including key top-level executives, high-net-worth individuals, business owners, venture capitalists, and entrepreneurs. Stephen co-founded and served as President of Wealth Management Advisors, LLC for twenty-one years before joining the Sachetta team.