The struggle with the spread of COVID-19 has many of us re-thinking whether we have all the right emergency legal documents we really need in place. No matter if you live in a coronavirus hotspot or don’t know anyone with COVID-19, there are certain documents you need to have on hand and understand how these legal documents can help protect you. Sometimes we choose not to think about those things, but during a pandemic we have to look at them, even when it may be scary to do it.
Managing important documents, especially emergency medical documents, isn’t any fun but it is important. It can and will help you and your family with essential healthcare decisions. Those decisions are especially difficult during an unexpected illness or accident so being prepared is just good personal finance management 101. Here’s what you need right now to protect you and your family!
Important Legal Documents
Last Will & Testament
Your will documents your final wishes after your death. Everyone should have a will because if you don’t the courts decide what happens to your possessions and who will take care of any minor children who survive you. That isn’t always the way you want things to unfold.
If you already have a will, you need to review it periodically as your personal finances and wishes change and now is a good time to do it. You don’t need a lawyer to create a will, but if you have a high net worth or many different types of assets, it’s a good idea to hire one.
Where do you begin? Start by creating an inventory of what you own and what you’d want to happen to each item or category. That includes bank accounts, investments, vehicles, real estate, and heirloom items that you want certain family members or friends to inherit by naming who the beneficiaries will be. You can even break down the values to particular people or organizations, such as 80% to your partner and 20% to a charity.
The details include things like naming guardians for any minor children as well as leaving instructions for who should inherit your pets and digital assets, such as social media accounts and websites. You would also include items such as funeral instructions and the disposition of your remains.
Someone must manage the legal details of your estate and carry out your final wishes, so you need an “executor” in your will. It can be your attorney or a family member or friend you trust to handle all the arrangements. Depending on the size of your estate, being your executor could be a challenging task. So be sure to name someone who’s willing and capable of doing that job.
In addition to a last will, you also need a living will or advance directive, which details your wishes for end-of-life care. It provides instructions for your doctors and family about how to make critical decisions if you face death.
For instance, if you were unresponsive for an extended period or in the final stages of a terminal condition, your living will would indicate whether you’d want to extend your life by artificial means or die without any medical intervention.
Health Care Proxy
Another emergency situation is getting a severe illness or being in an accident that leaves you mentally incapacitated. You can select a health care proxy, someone you authorize to make critical medical decisions for you. You name your proxy using a durable power of attorney for health care.
Consider who you’d trust with your care if you couldn’t make decisions on your own, and discuss your wishes with them. Keep in mind that if you have a living will and a health care proxy, the proxy cannot override the choices covered by the living will but can make decisions on circumstances not covered.
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Release
Your medical privacy is protected by HIPAA, which means some hospitals won’t allow medical professionals to disclose any information about you, even to your health care proxy. To make sure your family or proxy can manage your healthcare in an emergency, create a medical privacy release.
Power of Attorney (POA)
The last emergency document you should have is a power of attorney, which allows another person to stand in for you if you need help managing your financial decisions or legal affairs.
You can use a durable power of attorney any time you’re not capable of completing a critical task, such as filing taxes or making an insurance claim. You can also create one or more limited powers of attorney, which name specific people to act on your behalf for specific transactions during a limited period, such as selling your home.
Having a POA is how your finances can be handled if you become incapacitated, are unavailable, or don’t have time to manage them yourself.
Where Should You Keep Your Emergency Documents?
Once you have emergency documents, it’s critical to keep the originals safe, such as in your attorney’s office, a bank safe deposit box, or a fireproof safe at home.
Make extra copies to store at home in case you need them quickly. You can also scan and upload your legal documents to the cloud, using a service such as Google Drive or Dropbox.
If you’re married, your spouse may be able to make some emergency and legal decisions for you, but you have to prepare for every circumstance such as if you both become incapacitated at the same time. Consider what would happen if you needed to sell a jointly owned asset such as your home or investments, where each of you were required to authorize the transaction?
To avoid potential legal restrictions during a difficult time, married couples and domestic partners should give each other power of attorney. Each person also needs their own last will, living will, health care proxy, and HIPAA release, too.
With all that is going on in our lives, no one wants to think about illness and death. Even during a pandemic, we are trying hard to avoid it and think about getting back to “normalcy” as soon as we can. But, part of “normal” is and has always been keeping your personal important details in order.
After an emergency happens, it’s usually too late to make many critical decisions. So you are doing yourself and your family a favor by getting all your legal documents in place now. It’s much easier to prepare for a potential disaster than to recover from one that you didn’t see coming.
Do you have all of your important documents in order now? Even if you have the documents, have you reviewed them recently to insure that they are still appropriate and you don’t need any revisions or changes?