What is an Estate Package?
If you've read some of my earlier law blogs, you know I am a big advocate of proper estate planning. Because of that, I am always pleased when somebody calls me up and says "I need a will". While they are absolutely correct, they are often taken aback when I inform them that that is not all they need. Their hesitation usually subsides, however, when I reassure them that the cost of the Estate Package I offer does not change with the addition of a few other documents. Clients are often not wrong in thinking that some in the legal industry may very well try to sell them services beyond what they need. I stand firm in saying that a comprehensive Estate Package does not fall into that category. Although individual estate planning needs change from person to person, it is very well accepted in the legal community that an estate has been thoroughly planned upon the execution of the following documents:
1. Last Will and Testament
As discussed in prior blogs, the last will and testament is the cornerstone of any effective estate plan. It is this crucial document that determines how your assets will be distributed, thus avoiding the uncertain, untimely intestate proceeding. It can also dictate important details like who the guardian of your minor children will be, and whether trusts need to be set up to protect certain beneficiaries' assets until they reach a certain age. It can also include instructions for your final disposition, such as funeral arrangements and cemetery plots. Lastly, it can dictate that your personal representative serve independently and without bond, saving much time and trouble for your family.
2. Statutory Durable Power of Attorney
The Statutory Durable Power of Attorney is a document that designates another to act as your agent in certain business transactions, tax matters, etc. Generally termed a "financial" power of attorney, this document can either become effective immediately upon execution, or, more common, upon your disability or incapacity. The document allows an individual to choose between granting full, sweeping authority, or to pick and choose from specific powers such as "real property transactions", or "retirement plan transactions". Other important decisions include whether to appoint one agent or co-agents, and whether to allow agents to have "gifting" power, allowing them to gift your property outright for the benefit of another person. This important document ensures that your affairs are maintained in the event you are unable to do so.
3. Medical Power of Attorney
As can probably be gleaned from the title, the Medical Power of Attorney operates similarly to the Statutory Durable, but pertains only to health care decisions. Specifically, it states that the executor appoints another individual "as my agent to make any and all health care decisions for me, except to the extent I state otherwise in this document. This medical power of attorney takes effect if I become unable to make my own health care decisions and this fact is certified in writing by my physician." Unlike the "financial" POA, which can take effect immediately, its medical counterpart is contingent upon the signor being unable to make his or her own health care decisions. It is strongly advised that copies of this appointment be delivered to the agent, as well as the signor's doctors, family, and other interested parties. While the document is very clear in what it accomplishes, doctors will usually still interpret it in light of current standards of care and the desire of loved ones.
4. Advanced Directive to Physicians
An Advanced Directive, or living will, may seem oddly similar to a Medical POA, but they are in fact distinct documents with quite different objectives. It acts as your direct command to physicians in the event of two differing situations. The first is when a physician judges that you are "suffering with a terminal condition from which I am expected to die within six months, even with available life-sustaining treatment provided in accordance with prevailing standards of medical care." The second is when you are found to be "suffering with an irreversible condition so that I cannot care for myself or make decisions for myself and am expected to die without life-sustaining treatment provided in accordance with prevailing standards of care." In either situation, you must direct your physician to either be allowed to die comfortably, or be kept alive using life-sustaining treatment. These decisions are not to be taken lightly, and you should work closely with an attorney to ensure you fully understand your options.
There are many other tools that can be utilized in making sure you have an estate plan that fully meets your's or a loved one's distinct needs. Only through effective communication with an attorney you trust can the right plan be generated. Generally speaking, however, if you have these four documents, you can rest easy knowing that you and your family have properly prepared for life's difficult moments.