We are living in very challenging times. Covid-19 has attacked the whole world with a vengeance, putting life in jeopardy. Are you ready if a family emergency arises? If you do not set aside the time and money now, your family will spend much more when you pass or become debilitating. Set aside time right now. Allow me to suggest three critical steps you need to take right now, presented in four installments.
Organize your information and your advisors. List your personal information, personal advisors, accounts, investments, and passwords.
Don’t leave your family scrambling. And don’t assume that they will figure it out. Make sure your loved ones know exactly where this information is and how to access it. Write out any additional instructions on how to reach these accounts and investments.
Do those important to you know where your financial accounts are located, how to log onto your accounts online, or in which bank branch your safety deposit box is located? All sorts of personal information might be complicated to find in the event of your incapacity or death.
Unless your child is Sherlock Holmes, it’s a good idea to let them all know where these important documents and items can be found. Don’t assume that your spouse knows what you know or is comfortable reaching out to your advisors. Review the lists of accounts and important people with your loved ones so they can ask questions now.
How do you get organized?
1. Consolidate Your Accounts
If you hold individual stocks, create a broker account or submit them to your financial advisor, rather than keeping the actual stock certificates yourself. Reduce the number of 1099’s you receive at tax time by merging accounts or reducing the number of companies or brokers who manage your investments.
List all your digital and online accounts: Email, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Bitcoin, monthly memberships. List your usernames and which email account they are linked to. Document payments that are made automatically or bills that only come to you in a paperless format.
Your loved ones, your attorney, and your advisors all need this information if you can no longer communicate it. And since so much is now online, you need to organize your passwords. I suggest that you have a password manager like LAST PASS™ or another secure app.
The greatest gift you can leave your family is an organized collection of names, accounts, locations, and access information. If you read this and are overwhelmed at the prospect of organizing all of this, imagine how your loved ones will feel if they have to do it when you are no longer available!
2. Find Your Estate Plan
If you have established Powers of Attorney for health and finances, created a Will or a Trust, do you know where it is? Do your loved ones know where it is and who to contact if they have questions about it? When was the last time you reviewed it? Is it current, and does it have the correct people named for the various roles it creates?
As with your financial information and online access information, if you cannot find copies of these things, it is unlikely your loved ones will be able to. If you have not prepared any of these documents, contact an experienced estate planning attorney and begin the discussion! If you do have current documents, discuss them with your family.
3. Family Meeting
After you organize, or even AS you organize, have a family meeting. Talk about who your important advisors are, introduce them to your family. Review the types of accounts you hold and how you get your statements or access your funds. Discuss your strategies so they understand how you have planned to cover costs and which funds are the first you intend to use.
We are in the midst of a very unusual state of flux. Perhaps you have more time on your hands, and it is a perfect time to get organized. Perhaps you have less time and need to reach out to family or advisors for help getting started.
But we are also living through a time when sudden illness is a real threat. It is not morbid to take steps to get organized; it is preparedness. And it is peace of mind for both you and your loved ones.
Organization is the first step we always preach to clients. As part of that process, it makes sense to review your estate plan – your powers of attorney for financial matters, your health care directives, your will or trust. This review leads us to your second critical step:
Your General Durable Power of Attorney (sometimes referred to as a “financial power of attorney) is the most important document in your plan. If it is more than three years old, it likely does not address new issues, such as virtual currency or online access to accounts and information.
If you become incapacitated and don’t have an authorized durable power of attorney (someone that names another to act for you in matters that do not concern health care decisions, such as writing checks, paying bills, and managing your financial and legal affairs, gain access to your online accounts, etc.) or your appointed Power of Attorney cannot be found, the alternative is a court-ordered guardianship.
Not only is court-ordered guardianship difficult on your loved ones, but it is also expensive and time-consuming. If you think one lawyer is expensive, wait until you need two and a doctor.
I Have the State Authorized Power of Attorney
Believe it or not, there are vast differences between differently-drafted Powers of Attorney. The statutory form and other easily downloadable versions are very general, and at the same time, very restrictive. Do you understand what your Power of Attorney provides? Just as importantly, do you understand what it prohibits? And most importantly, do you understand when it works?
If an experienced estate planning attorney does not prepare your Power of Attorney, it is possible it does not empower your Agent with some fundamental abilities. Does it address access to digital data? Does it allow for your Agent to sign and file your tax return? Does it allow your Agent to do advanced estate planning for you?
If an experienced Elder Law Attorney does not prepare your Power of Attorney, it likely will be useless to help with your long-term care needs, such as qualifying you for assistance.
Sometimes, a limited power of attorney is important. For instance, you can grant such power if you do not have a trusted family member, friend, or professional.
But if you are not knowledgeable about what you are and are not enabling your Agent to do, it is difficult to address safeguards and alternatives that are also available. If no experienced advisor has identified potential gaps in your power of attorney, you will not know what other provisions you should have included – until it is too late.
Who Should I Appoint?
Be careful as this document grants very significant power, and you want to choose those folks you trust and are savvy in handling financial affairs. Remember that you can appoint more than one person to be empowered at the same time, requiring them to collaborate or permitting anyone to act independently.
If your spouse is not experienced in financial affairs, consider appointing a Co-Agent to act with them so that both can stay informed, but your spouse is not overwhelmed. If you have several children you trust, provided they can communicate well, there is no restriction on appointing more than one of them to act.
Do not limit yourself to family members. If you fear that these sorts of matters may cause division amongst your loved ones, consider appointing a professional Agent, either from your bank or financial institution or from a local company that provides trained individuals to act as your Agent.
Additionally, modern technology is such that distance is not as much of a consideration in choosing your Agent. A trusted family member or friend who does not live nearby may still be perfectly able to act for you without traveling to your location.
Don’t forget to tell your Agent that you are entrusting them with this position! “Surprise, you’re my Power of Attorney” is not the way your Agent should find out they are included in your plans. Discuss your goals, holdings, plans, and desires with the person or persons you are appointing.
Be sure they know where to find a copy of the Power of Attorney, along with the lists of advisors and accounts you prepared when you GOT ORGANIZED. You don’t have to share actual account values before you are comfortable doing so, but you must be sure they know where to get that information when they need it.
Without a current, well-prepared General Durable Power of Attorney, you handicap your loved ones when you are incapacitated. Children and spouses are not AUTOMATICALLY granted access to accounts or information simply by their status. You MUST empower them. In the absence of that power, bills may go unpaid, penalties may accrue, and chances to protect your estate from being liquidated to pay for care may be lost or delayed.
While a General Durable Power of Attorney permits an Agent to act for you in financial and legal affairs, Health Care Directives list who can be included in the disclosure of medical information, who can make medical decisions with and for you, and what specific medical decisions you desire in certain circumstances.
Sometimes, all of these elements are included in a Health Care Power of Attorney. Other times, they are separated into a HIPAA Consent (who has access), a Health Care Power of Attorney (who can make decisions), or a Living Will (specific directions for specific situations). As you get organized and update your General Durable Power of Attorney, the third critical action you should take is to update your health care directives.
Why is it so important that your health care directives be documented and current? First, it allows you to maintain control of your medical decisions. As I said in my last article about General Durable Powers of Attorney, your spouse and your children are not automatically empowered to make health care decisions for you if you are unable to do so yourself.
Unless you wish to become the next Terri Schiavo, you should strongly consider signing a new HIPAA consent, Health Care Power of Attorney, and Living Will. You may remember the St. Petersburg, Florida woman who was on life support for 15 years. Schaivo’s court case between her husband and parents caused a political and news upset requiring the United States Congress and Supreme Court.
Terri Schiavo’s husband insisted Terri would not have wanted to be kept alive artificially. At the same time, her parents claimed she wasn’t in a persistent vegetative state and should continue to be sustained by artificial means. I don’t know about you, but one of my lifetime goals does not include having my private health care matters being debated by our esteemed congressmen and senators.
Nor do I want to subject my loved ones to the agonizing decisions about my continued survival without some guidance from me.
Who Should I Appoint?
I don’t know if your kids are like mine. They were all raised under the same roof; how did they all turn out so different? Not everyone is willing or able to make tough medical decisions. It is not as important that the person you appoint be knowledgeable about medical issues as they are (1) available and (2) willing to put your wishes and beliefs above their own.
“Available” is not always geographically limited. With Skype, Facetime, and other mobile access tools, a trusted loved one can be included in discussing your health care decisions with doctors and nurses without being physically at your side.
“Willing to put your wishes and beliefs above their own” assumes that you have expressed your wishes and beliefs to the person you are asking to act for you. It also involves trusting them to advocate for you in place of you to insist your choices are obeyed, and your treatments follow your desired course. It is also vital that you share your wishes and beliefs with your doctors – the professionals who will be helping and guiding your chosen Agent and loved ones.
We also strongly suggest that you document your desires. Many online tools are available to walk you through the types of decisions you may once ask your health care agent to make so that you can educate them as to your preferences. Documentation assists your Agent in making decisions and provides them with proof that you considered your options and expressed your opinions while you had the ability.
Organ donation is an example of a very personal choice that differs for many people. It is also an example of a decision that must be made quickly by your health care agent when the time comes. When emotions are running high and shock may affect your loved ones’ ability to process information, your documented preferences can make a traumatic situation easier to handle.
Unlike General Durable Powers of Attorney that are used to manage non-medical areas of your life, Health Care Powers of Attorney must name only one person at a time as the Agent authorized to make your decisions. You can name multiple alternates in one or more agents who are unable or unwilling to act.
You cannot name your health care provider. As with professional trustees and financial agents, professional health care agents are available to name if you have no close family or friends.
Where Should I Store My Health Care Directives?
We believe that health care directives should be given out like candy! Make sure your named agents each have a copy. Be sure your doctor and local hospital of choice have a copy. Keep a copy in the glove compartment of your car. Pack a copy in your suitcase when you travel.
Subscribe to a service such as LegalVault, which will store your health care directives for you and provide you with a card to carry, which alerts any medical provider in the world to access the actual documents in emergencies. Never, ever store your health care directives in your safety deposit box. Emergencies never seem to happen during banking hours.
What would you do now with all bank lobbies closed?? How would you get them when needed?? If you feel you need to protect an original or a copy in a safe, be sure your agents know how to access them in an emergency. Include all contact information for your agents with a copy of your directives so emergency responders and doctors know who to contact.
Be sure your Agent also has a list of current prescriptions and dosages so they can inform doctors and nurses who may not know your history. Health care decisions are exceptionally personal and involved. Emotions run high in medical emergencies. Before your loved ones need to act for you financially, they may well need to act for you in the medical arena.
In our current state of affairs, indicating who can make decisions and what those decisions should be, particularly concerning such actions as ventilators and prolonged artificial life, your wishes as to who can decide and what they should consider is vital. Not only do health care directives equip your loved ones to act and advocate for you, but they also minimize disagreements and provide guidance at a time when your loved ones need your input most.
During an emergency, medical or otherwise, having information readily available is a fantastic gift for you and your loved ones. Think of the last time you checked in at a hospital – what information did they require? If you were unable to answer questions, would your loved ones be able to? Think of what information you would miss if you could not get to your home or if your home was destroyed by fire, flood, or tornado. Could you recreate critical data easily?
Medical Emergency Grab-and-Go
I suggest you prepare two folders with the following information, keep one at home or with you when you travel, and give one to your health care agent who does not live with you:
• Copy of your Health Care Directives (HIPAA Consent, Health Care Power of Attorney, and Living Will)
• List of your prescriptions
• List of allergies
• List of doctors and specialists (don’t forget your dentist)
• Copies of your health care insurance cards (front and back) – including Medicare and supplemental policies if applicable
• Copy of your driver’s license
• Emergency contact lists – essential people to call
• Copy of long term care insurance information
Emergency Replacement Grab-and-Go:
I suggest you prepare two folders with the following information, keep one at home and give the other to either your health care agent or your named Power of Attorney who does not live with you.
• Copy of your Medical Emergency Grab-and-Go documents
• Copy of your birth certificate
• Copy of your marriage certificate (your spouse may be hindered in receiving your social security after your death if they cannot provide proof of the marriage)
• List of Account types and locations (even if it doesn’t include your whole account number, it will provide a place to locate assets).
• Copy of Life Insurance policies
• Copy of your Passport
• Copy of your credit cards
There is a dispute as to whether you should include a copy of your social security card in this folder, as including that with the items listed above is everything a thief needs to steal your identity. The same discussions are had regarding passwords. A trusted cloud-based storage company may be a solution, as is a partially complete folder for each of two different people.
At the very least, someone other than you needs to know how to access copies of these items, and the ability to reproduce them if your home is destroyed is invaluable. Unless you have experienced it yourself, you cannot imagine the amount of necessary information to complete a Medicaid application, finalize a funeral or handle an estate after death. The more you can arm your loved ones with information, the more you make a difficult situation more manageable.
Remember that storing these things in a safety deposit box presumes that others have a spare key, know where the box is located, and are authorized to access it because you have completed the necessary forms at the bank. Storing them in a safe presumes others can access the place where the safe is located and know how to open it.
In our digital world, scanning all of this information onto one or more portable devices like a jump drive provides easy access and compact storage. Back-up copies of your home computer or laptop are also highly recommended. Be ready for any emergency. Organize, update, and make copies.
Ross Estate Planning, LLC serves Door County, Kewaunee County, Green Bay, and the Northeast from offices in Menomonee Falls. We specialize in asset protection, estate planning, and business planning for individuals and families, organizations, and business owners with over 40 years of expertise. When offering high-quality estate planning services, educating the client and obtaining accurate information is essential. We offer clients and interested clients a complimentary estate planning book and a complimentary consultation with an experienced attorney.