Your estate plan is more than a piece of paper, or several. It’s a roadmap for how you want the end of your life to play out. Find out how working with an experienced estate planning attorney can make a difference, and ensure you have everything you need to handle your affairs with dignity.
Estate Planning Should Always be Personal
Nearly everyone needs an estate plan. If you have a child, a pet, or a home, you probably should not rely on the default rules set out in the Florida probate code to handle your affairs after you pass away or how you will be treated in your final days. Whether you have a million-dollar estate, or just want to be sure your children are taken care of, you should sit down with an estate planning attorney to discuss your wishes and priorities now, before you really need it.
An estate plan should always be thoughtful, meaningful, and personal. It isn’t just about having the right documents (though that is very important). It’s also about working with an estate planning attorney who can guide you through the important choices and help you make the best decisions and put the right people in charge.
The Estate Plan Documents
An estate plan isn’t just paperwork, but it is important that everything in your estate plan is properly documented and laid out. This ensures that everyone involved -- family members, court staff, and even doctors -- know what you want to happen and who gets to make decisions for you. Those documents fall into two parts:
The Living Estate Plan
Many of the documents included in your estate plan are used while you are still alive. They include:
Durable Power of Attorney: This document names the person you want to make your financial and legal decisions if you become “incapacitated” -- legally unable to handle your own affairs. It hands over your checkbook and gives the person you designate the power to talk to your banks, financial planners, even the IRS, to make sure all your bills are paid and financial needs are met. It also protects your family from having to go to court and have a guardian named to take care of you after an accident or long-term illness.
Health Care Surrogate Designation: This document tells medical providers who has the authority to say what happens to you if you can’t make your own medical decisions. Practically speaking, it applies just as well in the hours after surgery or the years when dementia or another terminal illness makes you unfit to take care of yourself. Sending these to your doctors and hospital of choice makes sure someone is there to make life-saving medical choices without getting stalled in a lengthy court process.
HIPAA Releases: These are documents, often forms required by your doctor or hospital, that give medical providers authorization to discuss your medical condition and treatment with specific people. Often it is good to include both your attorney-in-fact (the one holding your power of attorney) and health care surrogate in these releases.
Living Will: The first 2 documents told professionals who would be making decisions for you to execute your wishes. The Living Will tells those people what those wishes are. It provides a guideline for your treatment, including whether you want to be kept alive artificially and when experimental treatments may be appropriate. This document is important because in some cases, doctors will not honor your wishes without it.
Living Trust: Trusts span the bridge between what you need while you are alive and what happens to your assets after your death. A living or revocable trust is created during your lifetime, and designates trustees to manage your financial affairs. While you are alive, that is usually you. But if you ever become incapacitated, your successor trustee can act in many of the same ways as a power of attorney, to make sure your financial affairs are handled.
When you are selecting the people who will handle your medical and financial affairs there are a few important things to keep in mind. First, your spouse isn’t automatically the best choice. It depends on his or her ability to handle stress and grief.
Second, your trustee or power of attorney and your health care surrogate should get along. Ultimately, one will be deciding what happens to you and the other writing the check for it. Ideally, they will be on good enough terms to work together to put your plan into action.
The Decedent’s Estate Plan
After you pass away, the rest of your estate plan kicks in. Those documents include:
Last Will and Testament: This document directs how your assets should be distributed and your remains handled, and sets out who you want to do the work of making your estate plan happen. It allows you to avoid following the “intestacy” rules of the probate court, and instead giving assets to the friends, family, or charities you care about most. A Will is still administered through the probate court, but it can streamline the process and help your loved ones resolve things more quickly.
Revocable & Irrevocable Trusts: These documents are “Will substitutes”. They move your assets into a legal entity and give control of that entity to trustees. They also include directions for what should happen to those assets after your death. A trust allows you to avoid or simplify probate court proceedings. Special kinds of trusts can also be used to provide for pets, protect disabled adults from losing their benefits, or shield your assets from creditors or unwanted in-laws.
Deciding whether to use a Will or a trust depends on what assets you have, what you want to do with them, and who (or what) you need to protect. Your estate planning attorney can help you consider everything from government benefits to tax consequences so you make the best decisions for your loved ones and your legacy.
Going Beyond Paperwork
Having an estate plan on paper isn’t enough. If no one knows about it, your next of kin could make decisions they shouldn’t, or even go to Court when they don’t need to. At Harrison Estate Law, we go beyond the paperwork. We help you talk to your family members, financial institutions, and doctors, to make sure everyone knows what the plan is, where it is, and who to talk to when it is time to put it in place. We are happy to help you with setting up a new estate plan or to review and update an existing plan. Please contact us online or via email or call 352-559-9828 to schedule a free consultation. If you don’t live close to Gainesville we are happy to set up a phone or Skype call.