Five Estate Planning Steps to Prioritize Now
By Attorney Maria C. Baler
Attorney Maria C. Baler discusses Five Estate planning steps to prioritize during the global pandemic.
Living through a global pandemic is an anxiety-producing experience. For many people, making sure their estate plan is in order is one way to exercise some control over the situation by providing some certainty around what will happen if they become sick or pass away. As a bonus, this exercise generally gives people peace of mind and reduces anxiety since they know they have done what they can to make sure things will be taken care of if the unexpected happens.
Here are five things to do now to reduce that pandemic-related anxiety for your estate plan:
1. Make sure your Health Care Documents are in Order. One of the things we are all worried about is getting sick, and especially getting sick enough to be hospitalized. If you are ill and unable to make or communicate your health care decisions, your physician will look to someone else to make those decisions for you. A Health Care Proxy is the document that appoints a person you select (your health care agent) to make health care decisions for you in this situation. Without a Health Care Proxy, the Court may need to appoint a guardian for you in order for health care decisions to be made on your behalf. A HIPAA Authorization will grant your family members access to your medical information and give them the right to confer with your physicians if you are not well enough to give permission. A Living Will, although not binding in Massachusetts, is a way to express your wishes about end of life care.
2. Distribute Health Care Documents and Discuss Health Care Wishes. After you have created your health care documents, make sure that each of your health care agents, your primary care physician, and any other specialists you see on a regular basis has a copy of your Health Care Proxy, and that the document is scanned into your electronic medical record. If possible, encourage your health care agents to save a copy of your proxy to their phone to make access easier in the event of an emergency. If you have signed a Living Will expressing your wishes about end of life care, you should provide a copy of that document to your health care agents as well. Finally, have a conversation with your physician and your health care agents about your wishes regarding health care in general, treatment for any specific medical conditions you may have (including COVID if that arises), and specifically regarding end of life care so that your wishes will be carried out if you are unable to make decisions for yourself.
3. Review your Estate Plan and Update if Necessary. In addition to making sure your health care documents are up to date, take time to review your Power of Attorney (for legal and financial decision-making), your Will and any Trusts you may have created to confirm those documents accurately reflect your current wishes. If they don’t, update them. If you have Trusts, review how your Trusts are funded, and whether any newly-acquired assets should be titled in your Trust. Review beneficiary designations on life insurance and retirement accounts and determine if any changes are needed. If you don’t have an estate plan, now is a good time to meet with an estate planning attorney to discuss your particular situation and create documents that are appropriate for you and your family.
4. Create a List of Your Assets and Organize your Documents. Whenever you pass away, it will be important for your family members or beneficiaries to be able to quickly and easily identify and locate your legal documents and identify the assets you own. An easy way to do this is to create a list of those assets (real estate, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, annuities, life insurance, etc.) and keep it in a place where it will be easily found. Keeping your financial records in one central location (such as a filing cabinet, desk or fireproof box) is a good idea. If you have a trusted person you can inform where to find this information, that is also a good step to take.
5. Don’t forget about Digital Assets. As more of our lives move online, it is important to leave instructions about how any digital assets that you may own should be dealt with at your death – email, photo and document storage accounts, social media, etc. As important as those instructions are, if your loved ones don’t have access to these accounts those instructions cannot be carried out. In addition to your legal documents giving authority for access, it is important to leave instructions regarding access, including usernames and passwords or how to gain access to them. Again, identify a trusted person and let them know where these instructions can be found.
You may think that planning for illness and death is not the most uplifting of activities, especially in the time of a global pandemic. However, I have clients tell me every day how good they feel after getting their estate plan in order. Even starting the process feels like a weight has been lifted since they know they are taking steps to make sure they are protected and their family will have an easier time of it in the event they become ill or pass away. Take some time to review your existing plan or move forward to create one – it’s not as painful as you think, and both you and your family will benefit in the long run.
Maria Baler, Esq. is an estate planning and elder law attorney and partner at Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC, a law firm based in Dedham. She is also a former director of the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (MassNAELA), and currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Massachusetts Forum of Estate Planning Attorneys. For more information, visit www.ssbllc.com or call (781) 461-1020. This article is not intended to provide legal advice or create or imply an attorney-client relationship. No information contained herein is a substitute for a personal consultation with an attorney.
© 2020 Samuel, Sayward & Baler LLC