What is the Most Important Document in an Estate Plan?

The most important part of your estate plan isn’t about taxes, investments, gifts, or other financial issues.
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Written by:Tim J. Wooten

Attorney at Law

Tim has 20 years of practice experience and has wide experience with federal and state courts throughout the country in insurance coverage, insurance defense, complex litigation, construction and design, product liability, breach of contract, federal tax controversy and disputes before the IRS and U.S. Tax Court, settlements and probate, and multi-jurisdictional litigation.
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The priority of every estate plan, regardless of your age, is the medical care documentation. Even while making decisions on other aspects of your estate plan, says this article from Forbes, “Be Sure You Have The Most Important Document In Every Estate Plan,” you should get these documents done to protect your care and comfort for the rest of your life.

Some of the document’s names may vary from state to state. However, estate planning attorney Timothy Wooten will know which ones you need.

HIPAA Authorization. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 protects patient privacy but also makes it illegal for people you don’t authorize in writing to gain information about your medical status. You’ll need a document authorizing medical providers to discuss your situation with key people in your life. Once the document is executed, distribute copies to medical care providers and the people named in the document.

Living Wills and Advance Directives. Living wills were once simple statements, stating, “If I have a terminal condition and there’s no hope of recovery, don’t prolong my life by artificial means.”  These statements are now considered obsolete. Medical science has advanced to a point where it cannot be said with certainty whether someone may improve. There are also disagreements about whether some types of care, like the use of a ventilator, should be considered artificial life support or essential to helping a patient recover from a serious illness.

To address this, some estate planning attorneys create detailed custom living wills, using questionnaires with different scenarios so their clients can decide in any of the situations. Of course, you can’t anticipate every situation, and there can be differences of opinion about diagnosis and prognosis. There are instances where medical providers aren’t given the documents until after treatment has been administered. However, it’s better to express your wishes proactively.

Healthcare Power of Attorney. The limits of living wills and advance directives have led some estate planning attorneys to replace or supplement them with a healthcare power of attorney or healthcare proxy. The HPOA gives one or more people—known as your agents—the authority to make medical decisions if you cannot. The agents talk with your healthcare providers to understand your situation and options. They then make decisions in tandem with the wishes stated in your living will.

Agents need to be available, so you’ll want to name people who are nearby. Appointing more than one agent can provide flexibility in an emergency.

Do Not Resuscitate/Hospitalize. It’s common for older, frail patients to decide they don’t want to be resuscitated or hospitalized. For example, CPR is often declined because while it may bring a person back to life momentarily, their eventual passing may become violent rather than peaceful. The thinking behind DNR orders is this: at some point, hospitalization or treatment for every new ailment only briefly extends life without improving its quality and could reduce the person’s quality of life. Make sure a DNR/DNH is easily accessible to first responders, give medical providers a copy and consider having a bracelet or necklace with these letters.

Once all these documents are executed and circulated, it will be time to focus on distributing property and protecting assets.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 22, 2024) “Be Sure You Have The Most Important Document In Every Estate Plan”

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