Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

Let’s have a serious, possibly uncomfortable discussion for a moment. I’m going to talk about disability, incapacity, and the Grim Reaper himself. Just in time for the holidays, right? Well attorneys aren’t exactly known as the life of the party, you know.

Ask a person if she has a Will and she may nod eagerly, and then hand you a document entitled “Living Will.” And that, my friend, is not going to dispose of her property upon her death. So no, she doesn’t have a Will, and whomever prepared her Living Will did not do a sufficient job of explaining what it was to her. Similarly, a power of attorney is not going to let her named agent distribute her estate after she passes. Estate planning documents can be confusing, but each document has a specific purpose, and most of us need one of each type. Let’s break it down.

A Power of Attorney lets you select a person who can help handle your affairs while you’re still alive, but can’t do it all on your own anymore. (There are several types, but let’s save that discussion for another day.) On the other hand, a Will lets you name the person who will handle your property after you’ve died. A Will also lets you decide what to do with your own stuff, meaning you may be able to control who gets your hard-earned property after you pass. Despite the similar name, a Living Will has nothing to do with a Will: a Living Will allows you to make your wishes known regarding whether you are kept on life support, such as a breathing tube or feeding tube, despite being in a brain dead state. A Living Will is sometimes used interchangeably with the term “DNR,” or “Do Not Resuscitate.” Remember, I told you this wasn’t going to be a pretty discussion. Bear with me.

Why would I bring this topic up? Don’t only elderly or ill people need to worry about this morbid stuff? Not so. Any one of us, at any age and at any time, can walk out the door and be seriously injured in a car wreck – meaning you would need a power of attorney to name someone to help manage your bills or talk to your doctors for you. To take it one step further, that car wreck could lead to your early and unexpected death, making a Will invaluable in making sure that your estranged brother doesn’t inherit your fortune just to squander it by funding his drug habit or that your favorite niece gets your expensive jewelry. A Will can even name a guardian for your children, in case they happen to be minors when both their parents die.

Estate planning can be a hard topic to discuss, but it’s a discussion we need to have, and to have sooner rather than later. Having made my own plans years ago, I can say with confidence that having a thorough estate plan can bring great peace of mind. It’s not quite peace on earth, but these days, I’ll take peace wherever I can find it.