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What are the Right Estate Planning Documents for Me?

Estate planning involves planning for incapacity and death: The most common Estate Planning documents seem to be (1) the will (2) the durable power of attorney and (3) the health care directive. There are other less common documents or "instruments", but the vast majority of people should consider the above.

Death:

Most people need a will. It is a good idea for just about everyone to have a will or at least to look into the idea and have a discussion with an attorney to explore your present situation. What will happen when state law makes decisions about your estate rather than you making those decisions in a will?  Those laws determine the person that will take care of the distribution of their assets in their estate. Do you know who that person or entity would be right now without a will? If you do not, it is a good idea to find out. State law has a sort of "preset" rule for all different types of situations. Do you have any assets that you would like to specifically give to another person? You can make specific bequests in a will to make sure that person gets a keepsake or family heirloom. Lastly, do you have children? Who should be their guardian if something happens to you and your spouse? This is something you can take care of in a will. Some situations are more urgent than others and of course the need for a will is simply greater in some cases. You should at least know where you fall on this scale by having an initial consultation. It is a planning document for your family. Think of it as insurance: it is not fun to think about and you hope you never need to use it, but it is simply something a smart person has to prepare for the worst.

Incapacity:

Health care decisions: If you have any specific convictions about your healthcare decisions, you need to talk to an attorney to have your decisions put in writing so that your wishes are not overridden by someone else. Missouri is an absolute hotbed for healthcare decision lawsuits, many of which could have been avoided with a clearer estate plan. What do you want to happen if you are on life support? You can make very specific decisions about what types of life sustaining procedures you would like or not like, such as blood transfusions. Is there a point at which you want procedures withdrawn? These issues can be addressed in a health care directive or "living will".  Additionally, to cover all the potential decisions, you may appoint someone to make all other medical decisions when you cannot. This can be done in a separate durable power of attorney or a power of attorney that covers both finances and healthcare. If you have one person you can entrust both financial and health decisions to, it is recommended not to split the functions of healthcare decision maker and financial decision maker. At times, like when paying for a medical procedure, the two need to work in coordination and the simplest way is for a single person to have both functions.

Financial:  A durable power of attorney will appoint someone to take care of your financial decisions in the event that you are not able to make these decisions. As I mentioned above, this person can be the same or different from the person you appoint to make your healthcare decisions. You can also name an alternate in the event that your first choice is unavailable.

BOTTOM LINE: Even if you think that you do not need Estate Planning documents, scheduling a consultation with an attorney is an intelligent financial move to find out where you fall on the scale of needing Estate planning documents to meet your health, financial, and even emotional wishes (e.g. passing along an heirloom).

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