There are few people alive who remember the 1918 Flu Pandemic. I find it amazing that our children and grandchildren will grow up with pandemic experience from these unprecedented times.
Our nation has never seen or dealt with a virus this severe and vastly impactful. Everyone has been affected; small businesses and large corporations, healthcare workers, our education industry, families of all kinds, particularly our elders and others most vulnerable to the virus…the list goes on. We still do not understand all the ways this pandemic experience will change our lives, but we do know it pays to be prepared at any stage of life, no matter what happens. You do not need a pandemic to put your legal and financial affairs in order.
Here are five ways you can prepare now to make things easy for your family and for you as you age, should you become ill and need care or when you or a loved one dies:
- First, educate yourself about the process.
There is a myriad of information available to help you become an educated consumer of legal services. The downside of this is that just as “Dr. Internet” cannot give you an accurate diagnosis of a medical problem, the internet cannot always diagnose your legal problem and provide a proper solution. However, it is good to read the most intelligent commentary you can find about about estate planning, long-term care planning, Medicaid, probate, whatever your issue, so that you can make the best use of your time and money when you meet with an attorney. Many attorneys will offer a free initial consultation to help analyze your problem or your needs, educate you further and allow you to get to know and decide whether you and the attorney are a good fit.
- Engage an attorney to get the estate planning documents you need for your circumstances.
You leave an attorney’s office with proper documents, but the value of a visit with an attorney is the attorney’s counsel and analysis of what is appropriate for your particular circumstances. Speaking with an expert can help ease the stress and confusion people feel when they do not have their affairs in order.
Do you need a Will or a Trust? Or a Will with a Trust? An attorney can help you determine what is best for your assets, your family and your legacy. These documents allow you to appoint a Personal Representative who will be charged with settling your estate when you die, and if necessary, a Trustee to manage assets you leave in trust for a minor or a disabled beneficiary. An attorney can help you create a document that will speak for you when you can no longer speak.
Every adult should have a Durable Power of Attorney, appointing an agent (and a successor or two) to make financial or medical decisions for them, should they become incapacitated – unable to manage the business of their life. Often, these are two separate documents. An attorney can help you choose the best, most trusted people in your life, who will carry out the agent duties according to your wishes.
Another key document is a Healthcare Directive, also known as an Advance Directive or a Living Will, to document your wishes for your end-of-life care. Should you find yourself with the misfortune of a terminal condition or in a permanent unconscious state, what would your wishes be for your care? What does quality of life mean to you? An attorney can guide you through a discussion of these sensitive topics and document your wishes in a way that will be clear to your family and to medical personnel caring for you.
- Give direction to your assets during your lifetime.
Wills are important, no matter the size of your estate. They send messages to your family when you no longer can communicate. They can protect your family, your assets and establish your legacy. They can convince a court of your wishes so that the legal system protects your heirs and beneficiaries. If you die without a Will, Washington law determines how your assets pass – to your blood and adopted relatives. If this isn’t your wish, if you have a beloved stepchild or friend to remember, or want to leave a gift to charity, the law cannot help. You must have a Will.
Another way to give direction to your assets during your lifetime, is to set up joint titling, for instance, your checking account with your spouse or if you are single, with your only child, the daughter who is your sole heir. A person who is a co-owner of a jointly titled asset can easily claim the asset when you die.
Many assets allow you to indicate your beneficiaries when you die. It is important to keep these beneficiaries up to date as your life changes. Even an asset like a checking account will allow you to establish a “Payable on Death” beneficiary.
A third way to give direction to an asset that is real property – your home, your vacation property, your farmland – is by deed. There are several ways to indicate the beneficiary of your property after you die, perhaps saving taxes and making it easier to settle your estate. In particular, if you own real property in another state, you will want to consult an attorney about how to give direction to this asset.
An attorney can help you determine the simplest, most effective plan for giving direction to your assets.
- See an attorney to determine what steps you might take to avoid having to probate your estate through a court when you die.
Probate is the process, as dictated by Washington law, that allows a Superior Court to oversee the settling of an estate. Roughly 40% of estates in Washington are settled through the probate process. The most common reason for this is to clear title to a parcel of real property. Probate is not a difficult process in Washington. It can be a very valuable process; for instance, when the decedent had many creditors or there is discord in the family. It provides protections for the heirs and the creditors. However, probate costs money and time and in many cases, the need for it is often avoidable.
Regardless of whether or not a family uses the probate process to settle the estate, the expenses and debts of the estate must be paid before the net assets can be distributed to the heirs. The goal is to make settling your estate as easy as possible during the difficult time following your passing. While you are living, see an attorney with the goal of understanding how you can help your family settle your estate by planning ahead.
- Plan for the instance when you may need long-term care.
One of the key differences between an attorney that practices just estate planning and an elder law attorney, is that the elder law attorney will do everything with an eye to your possible future need for long-term care. Planning before a health crisis that dictates the need for care gives you more options for care settings. It also allows you to protect assets for your family and preserve eligibility for government needs-based benefits to pay for long-term care. Many people are surprised to know these costs won’t be paid by their Medicare insurance. Your options, should you need care are to pay for it with income, long-term care insurance, your own financial resources or to qualify for government needs-based benefits like Veterans benefits and Medicaid.
You never know what your health will look like as you age. You might need extensive help with activities of daily living; those things we all need to be able to do to remain independent, like bathing and dressing. An elder law attorney will help you consider your options for care such as in-home care, or facility living like adult family homes, assisted living or memory care. An elder law attorney will also help you determine how you will pay for such care. With the services of an elder law attorney, you will have an easier time for a better result.