Five Essential Estate Planning Documents

Five Essential Estate Planning Documents

Make Reviewing Your Estate Plan One of Your 2017 Resolutions

The beginning of a new year is a good time to take a look at your estate plan to make sure it is up to date. Less than half of the population actually has any estate planning documents in place, and many may have outdated documents. Documents that were created when your children were born may need updating 10, 20, 30, or 40 years later, after your family and financial situation have changed entirely.  Estate planning is all about five essential documents. Here they are in order of importance:

  1. The Power of Attorney

The most important estate planning instrument for taking care of you and your family during life, as opposed to after death, is the power of attorney. This appoints one or more people you trust to step in and handle your finances and legal matters in the event of your incapacity, whether through illness, dementia, or an accident, and whether the incapacity is temporary or permanent. In the absence of a power of attorney, family members often must resort to going to court to be appointed guardian or conservator. This causes delay, is expensive, and incurs unnecessary legal fees. Failure to have a power of attorney can also cause fighting amongst family members. While the concept of the power of attorney is simple – I appoint you as my agent for financial and legal matters in the event of incapacity – the devil, as always, is in the details. You have to make decisions about how many agents to appoint, whether to have alternates, whether to allow gifting, when the power of attorney should take effect, and whether to grant trust powers. Our office can help you with these details.

  1. Health Care Proxy

Like the power of attorney, a health care agent steps in for you to make health care decisions when and if you become incapacitated. Unlike a power of attorney, it only takes effect when a doctor determines that you are unable to make decisions yourself and you can only appoint one individual to serve at a time. This is so that there will be a single point-person in dealing with medical professionals and no possibility of disagreement or stalemate between co-health care agents. You can and should name one or more alternates to the principal agent.  The main problem with health care proxies is that agents often have no idea or only a vague idea of what decision the patient would make in a particular circumstance. This can be addressed in one or more of these ways: a medical directive, a conversation between the potential patient and the agent, or a letter of instruction by the potential patient.  Our documents include a general medical directive can be included with the health care proxy that says either (1) pull the plug if I am in a vegetative state or irreversible coma, (2) balance the potential benefit and discomfort of any proposed treatment, or (3) do whatever you can to keep me alive, depending on your preferences.

  1. HIPAA Release

In addition to a health care proxy, everyone needs a HIPAA release. The HIPAA law bars medical practitioners from releasing medical information to anyone, even to the spouse of a patient, without a release. You may well ask why a heath care proxy is not sufficient. There are a few answers: First, the health care proxy is “springing” in that it doesn’t get activated until or unless the patient is declared incapacitated. Second, while the health care proxy may only name one person at a time, you may well want a much broader group of people to communicate with medical providers. The agent may not always be available or may not be the first person on the scene.

All too often we have seen medical providers hide behind HIPAA to avoid having to deal with family members, sometimes to great harm to the patient. Especially in emergency situations, family members often have vital information about the patient, whether it’s the medications he is taking, allergies he may have, or his usual physical and mental health. HIPAA does not say that medical personnel cannot listen to this information, but it can be misconstrued in that fashion. It is best to eliminate the whole issue by having a HIPAA release signed and available in case it is ever needed.

  1. Your Will

Your Will says who will get your assets when you die and who will be in charge of paying your bills, filing your tax returns, gathering your assets, and distributing your estate according to your instructions.

Although the Will gets all the recognition and there are substantial laws governing the “probate” process, these days most assets pass outside of probate. What the Will says does not apply in many situations, including: joint accounts that pass to the other joint owners, retirement plans and life insurance policies that go to designated beneficiaries and property in trust that passes to the beneficiaries named in the trust document. Only the assets you own in your own name passes under the Will. In addition, while the will requires a lot of formality – two witnesses and a notary all signing at the same time – these other forms of passing on property usually require only the signature of the owner, or sometimes simply filling out a form online.

That said, Wills are important in terms of distributing your tangible personal property – such as furniture, jewelry, tools, clothing, boats, and cars. Your Will appoints your executor or personal representative who is in charge of carrying out your wishes. This can be very important in avoiding squabbling among children. And your Will can be used to appoint Guardians for minor children. A Will permits you to make charitable or other specific bequests. Finally your Will can serve as a failsafe in case other means of passing on property fail.

  1. Revocable Trust

The documents listed above may be enough, but you may also want a revocable trust, sometimes called a “living” trust. A trust is a construct under which one or more people, the Trustees, manage property or investments for the benefit of one or more people, the Beneficiaries. In a revocable trust, typically at the start, the same person acts as the creator of the trust, the grantor or donor, as trustee and as beneficiary. Not much changes in their lives after they set up the trust. But it avoids probate by naming successor beneficiaries after the initial beneficiary passes away. While probate is not the worst thing that can happen to people, avoiding it can save heirs time and trouble.

But more importantly, a trust is a terrific tool for intervening in the event of incapacity. Financial institutions that are resistant to accepting durable powers of attorney appear to be more comfortable with trusts when a successor trustee is named. But it works even better when a parent names one or more adult children as co-trustees. The parent then does not give up any rights or autonomy, but permits the child to begin participating in financial management. Even if the child does nothing, he or she can view accounts and step in immediately if a problem arises. This can be especially important in the event of dementia or scams. Seniors are the primary victims of scams and having a trusted family member with access to accounts can help identify scams and permit intervention to limit their effect.

In addition to probate avoidance and incapacity protection, trusts are infinitely flexible in terms of how they are drafted. They can state any number of specifics on who receives property when, for instance, permitting its distribution over time to children and grandchildren. The options and opportunities for creativity are limitless

As you can see, most of these documents are about life, not necessarily death. Of course, they are still about planning for an unwanted event – incapacity of some sort. Estate planning is similar to insurance, making sure that you and your family are taken care of if an unfortunate accident occurs.

As part of our estate planning consultations, we discuss ways to avoid or minimize all Estate and Inheritance Taxes, as well as ways to simplify the probate process for your loved ones upon your death. Please do not hesitate to contact our Estates and Trusts Practice Group Attorneys and Paralegals if you have any questions or would like assistance in preparing or reviewing your estate planning documents: Renata Mizak, Esq. (; Jessica Jansyn, Esq. (; Richard Sweeney, Esq. (; Colleen Hewitt (; Laurie Spangenberg (; Jessica Bisanzio ( Our attorneys and paralegals can also be reached by phone at (973) 729-1880.