Core Legal Documents You Cannot Afford To Live Without
I will admit, in my 20s when I heard the phrases Power of Attorney, Health Care Directive and Living Will I covered my ears. Walked away. Believed I would never need them. Life events don’t happen to me. We will be OK. It’ll all work out. After all, I have faith and that’s enough right? I didn’t understand the burden, stress and heartache it will place on others if something happens to me, or my significant other, if a person does not have these legal documents in place.
What Kind Of Situation Could Cause The Need For A Power Of Attorney?
One day at work my boss came back from a court appearance in support of a friend. She took our team aside, and spent 5 minutes to share with us one of the most heartbreaking situations she was helping her friends through, we’ll call them Jon and Jane.
Jon and Jane were in their later 50s, in the process of selling their home and transitioning to a retirement phase of lifestyle. Jon unexpectedly had a stroke. He was left with frontal lobe damage, paralyzed and the rest of his quality of life diminished. But he would survive. For how long? Years in this state? It was unknown.
Jon did not have a Power of Attorney in place. The sale of their home fell through because Jane could not sign any financial documents without Jon. She was left with the burden of a mortgage on her own. It took hiring a lawyer to represent her, as well as hiring a lawyer to represent her husband in court and 5 months to have him declared unable to make financial decisions.
Why Do I Need A Health Care Directive?
Living Wills, also called Health Care Directives or Advance Directives, are legal document that carries out the wishes of your health care treatments after you are incapacitated and cannot make decisions on your own.
This is a situation that hit pretty close to home for me. My great aunt and uncle were traveling on an interstate to Oklahoma City for appointments. There was a road construction project that unexpectedly backed up. My aunt and uncle’s mini van plowed into the back of a sitting semi at 85mph.
Unfortunately, they did not die instantly. Their injuries were horrific. Many broken bones. Organ and brain damage. Their children hoped for the best, but knew to prepare for the worst. They were faced with a decision to unplug ventilators and let their parents go with as little of suffering as possible.
But, they could not find their parent’s Power of Attorney document, nor their Health Care Directive. Disagreements among the family members began who was listed as Power of Attorney. Of course, family members had differing opinions of the health care decisions that needed to be made. It tore apart families and bittered relationships.
After 2 weeks, my uncle was taken out of his medical induced coma long enough to regain consciousness, understand the grave circumstances him and his wife were in, stated where their legal documents were located which did name one of his son’s in charge. A decision was made to unplug his wife. But without her, he then lost his will to live and slipped into a coma and organs began to shut down soon after. The son then made the decision to remove his father’s ventilator.
Do I Need A Will If I Have a Health Care Directive? Isn’t It The Same Thing?
A Living Will will carry out your health care decisions, but it may not cover what should be done with your assets or children. A Will can carry out decisions in your Living Trust where you have your assets designated to go. And a Will should be established to cover anything else that is not a financial or health care decision for you, such as the guardianship of your children.
When it came to naming the Guardians for our children, this was a hard decision. Essentially we are placing the responsibility (and burden) for someone else to raise our kids without us.
There’s many factors to consider. Do you want your kids to stay in the same state to be close to relatives? Well, then maybe you need to remove your brother’s name as the Guardian because he just moved 2,000 miles across the country. Did you want your kids to go to the same school and have as minimal life changes and interruptions as possible? Then you may want to consider trustworthy friends or neighbors who would raise your kids as their own.
Designation Of Assets, Guardianship Of Children And Medical Decisions Are Conversations You Need To Have With Family Members, Friends and Lawyers
Each state may vary by laws, regulations, forms and can make your head spin with words that are not in your vocabulary. At least it did for me.
It is important to have conversations to gain enough understanding of where you want everything and every loved one in your life to go when you make these decisions. And also ask enough questions (with enough crazy scenarios) to gain a clear understanding of what would happen if you become incapacitated (can’t make decisions for yourself) as well as if you die.
What Is The Cost Of Getting My Financial, Health Directive, Trust and Guardianship Documents In Order?
Another great question, that of course will vary state by state. I’ll break it down for us. We researched ourselves a little bit before going to a lawyer and thought we would need a Power of Attorney, Health Care Directive, Will and Trust.
Now that might be overkill for your situation, but if you are responsible for children under the age of 18, or have lots of assets, you may want to ensure all your bases are covered. We also visited with lawyers, and they suggested the same legal documents for our situation.
There’s also no shame in “shopping around” for a lawyer that will meet your needs. You can ask for price estimates based upon the documents you will need. Also make sure the lawyer is acting in your best interest. We experienced people who are too busy, or have enough clients to fulfill their needs that they didn’t seem interested, or want our business. If anyone ever treats you differently because of your financial situation, I would question their ethics, integrity and look somewhere else.
The cost for establishing our estate plan (wills with trust/guardianship provisions, health care directive and power of attorney) was about $1,200.
There are cheaper options such as free downloadable templates online. Throughout each step in creating the document you choose, it explains definitions and terms which is very helpful. These documents can also be downloaded to work from as templates to get you started in making decisions before you visit a lawyer.
For us, we wanted to establish a relationship with a law office in case anything ever came up financially, or as a homeowner, or if we were making decisions with the care of our parents, etc. And so we chose a law office for establishing our legal documents.
Where Should I Store My Legal Documents?
When you establish legal documents with a lawyer, they will also have guidance on the most appropriate places to store them, as well as who you should inform and also give rights to access them.
Chances are, if you have named individuals in your Power of Attorney Document and or a Health Directive, then you probably trust them enough to have a copy of the document. After all, they are going to need it immediately if something happens to you.
Other places to store these documents include the attorney’s office, in a fireproof safe in your home, as well as a safety deposit box at a bank. Don’t make the mistake my great aunt and uncle did in not telling family members, a bank or law office where these documents were or who had them.
Again, if you store all your legal documents in a safe place, be sure to tell trusted people where they are and make sure they have the appropriate rights to access them.
Other To-Do’s You Forget About, But Need To Be Taken Care Of If You Are Incapacitated or Die
It wasn’t until my mid-30s when I realized the importance of having all my financial and healthcare directive ducks in a row. A fire was lit under my butt to act on getting them done after seeing firsthand the additional stress and hardships it had caused among small circle of people I know in this big world.
Their situations could happen to me. I’m not special. I’m an average person. A mom. A wife. An employee. Simply raising my kids and paying off debt. One day, my luck may run out and tragic things could happen. However, I can control how much burden I place on others by being prepared and they can go on living as much of a normal life as they can without additional stress.
After visiting with people, I realized there’s many other to-do’s if you become incapacitated or die. It’s the things we don’t think about. Does my mom know how to pay my utility bills? Someone should know how to pay this so the lights and water can be kept on until our house would sell. Do they know where to cancel our internet, cable, cell phone and other online or gym memberships? Likely no.
I’m not a lawyer, and can’t advise you what should/shouldn’t be in your legal documents. I just encourage you to have them. But because I am an organized person, I have created a checklist for you of everything you may not think of that you or your trusted person may need to do or take care of in your life.
After the incapacitation or death of a loved one, you may be overwhelmed with the tasks that need to be done. I know first hand how hard it is to plan for a funeral when the emotions are high with family members. Please take a moment to sign up and receive a simple worksheet for survivor’s to help prioritize and keep track of what needs to be done. This also is a great conversation tool to have with your partner or family members so that if an unfortunate tragedy happens, at least these conversations have already occurred.
Final Thoughts On Core Legal Documents & Why You Should Have Them
- If you die or become incapacitated, it can create a great burden and stress for family or friends of yours to handle your estate or private matters without key legal documents such as Wills, Trusts, Health Care Directives, and Powers of Attorney.
- Take time to review your situation to find out which legal documents would best fit your situation if you have kids under 18, assets, multiple siblings, aging parents, etc.
- The cost of establishing legal documents will vary in state to state, and within law offices. There are cheaper alternatives such as printable templates online for download or to use as worksheets when estate planning.
- Store your legal documents in a safe place, as well as tell the appropriate individuals where these documents are if they need to access them when you are incapacitated or in case of death.
- Use my survivor's worksheet to plan for and think about everything else that may need to be taken care of in case something happens to you. Also let the appropriate individuals know where this document is, or give them a copy of it if you trust them.