You can help determine what will happen by making your own arrangements in advance. Through estate planning, you can choose those who will care for you and your estate if you ever become unable to do so for yourself. Just make sure that your choices are documented in writing.
A power of attorney, for example, is a written legal document that gives another person the right and authority to act on your behalf. It can be limited to special circumstances or it can be general. That authority will end if you become incapacitated — unless you have a durable power of attorney. A durable power of attorney will remain in effect while you are incapacitated. This means that if you were suddenly unable to handle your own affairs, someone you trust — your legal agent or attorney-in-fact — could do so for you.
You may choose to set up a springing power of attorney. It would only become effective at a specified future date or event (your loss of capacity, for example).
You can authorize your agent to simply pay your bills. (This is usually a safer arrangement than adding someone else’s name to your bank account.) Or you can empower your agent to handle nearly all of your affairs. Your agent, however, cannot take anything of yours as a “gift” without your specific written authorization. These powers of attorney all expire when you die.
Make sure that you understand all of the terms before signing a power of attorney. And be absolutely certain that your chosen agent is both capable and trustworthy. There are those who have lost their life savings to unscrupulous agents — even to agents who are family members.
If you set up a living trust, it is the trustee who will provide the necessary management of the assets held in trust. However, even if you have a living trust, you should still consider setting up a durable power of attorney for property management as well to handle limited financial transactions and to deal with assets that may not have been transferred to your living trust, such as retirement accounts.
With an advance health care directive, you can also designate someone to make health care decisions for you in the event that you become unable to do so for yourself. In addition, this legal document can contain your wishes concerning such matters as life-sustaining treatment and other health care issues and instructions concerning organ donation, disposition of remains and your funeral. (You can revoke the directive at any time, as long as you are still competent.) Give copies to your health care agent, alternate agent, doctor, health plan representatives and family. And if you are admitted to a hospital or nursing home, take a copy with you.
If you become unable to make sound decisions or care for yourself and you have not made any such arrangements in advance, a court could appoint a court supervised conservator to manage your affairs and be responsible for your care. The court’s supervision of the conservator may provide you with some added safeguards. However, conservatorships can also be more cumbersome, expensive and time-consuming than the appointment of attorneys-in-fact under powers of attorney.
In any event, even if you appoint attorneys-in-fact who could manage your assets and make future health care decisions for you, you should still document your choice of conservators in case a conservatorship is ever necessary.
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