What to Do and Not Do with Your Estate Planning Documents

Creating and executing estate planning documents is just the first step. Once you have completed the documents, you need to know what to do with them.

All estate plans should include, at minimum, two important planning instruments: a durable power of attorney and a will. A trust can also be useful to avoid probate and to manage your estate both during your life and after you are gone. In addition, medical directives allow you to appoint someone to make medical decisions on your behalf. Once you have all these essential estate planning documents, you need to make sure they are stored properly and get to the right people.

Store the Documents Properly
Your estate planning documents should be stored in a safe, secure location that is accessible to your personal representative (also called an executor), the person you appoint to handle your estate’s affairs after your passing. Some law firms will store your original signed documents for you. If you want to keep them at home, you should use a water- and fire-proof safe or filing cabinet. Many people use a safe deposit box in a bank, but these can be hard for your representative to access. Often the documents giving your personal representative the right to access the safe deposit box are themselves in the box. If you do use a safe deposit box, you may want to have a joint owner on the account.

Spread the Word
It is critical that you tell your personal representative where the documents are located so that he or she can easily access them when needed. If the documents are locked away, your representative needs to know the combination or where the key is located.

You should also talk to other people who might be affected –such as your agent under a power of attorney or a health care proxy–about what you want if you are unable to communicate your wishes yourself. Doing this ahead of time will help them execute your wishes when the time comes. You may want to give family members copies of your documents. If an original document is lost, the court may accept a copy in some circumstances.

Avoid Confusion
Make sure you destroy any old estate planning documents that are no longer valid. Old documents can cause confusion among family members and could lead to litigation.

In addition, do not write on your current documents. If you want to make a change, contact your attorney to formally change the document. Handwritten additions are usually not valid and could raise questions about the document.

Three Changes You May Want to Make to Your Estate Plan Now Due to the Pandemic

You may need to reevaluate some elements of your estate plan in light of the coronavirus pandemic. There are unique aspects of this crisis that your current estate planning documents may not be suited to handle.

The language in some estate planning documents that is fine under normal conditions may cause additional problems for you and your loved ones if you fall ill during the pandemic. Look over the following documents to see if they may need updating in order to fulfill your wishes:

  • Living will. A living will is a document that you can use to give instructions regarding treatment if you become terminally ill or are in a persistent vegetative state and unable to communicate your instructions. The living will states under what conditions life-sustaining treatment should be terminated. Many living wills contain a prohibition on intubation, which can be used to prolong life, even in a vegetative state. However, in the case of Covid-19, intubation and placement on a ventilator can actually save a patient’s life (although many patients who are intubated still die). If your living will contains a blanket prohibition on intubation, you may want to rethink that.
  • Durable Power of Attorney. A power of attorney (POA) allows you to appoint an agent to act in your place with regard to financial matters. A POA can be either current or springing. A current POA takes effect immediately, usually with the understanding that it will not be used until and unless you become incapacitated. A “springing” POA only takes affect when you become incapacitated. The problem is that springing powers of attorney create a hurdle for the agent to get over to use the document. When presented with a springing power of attorney, a financial institution will require proof that the incapacity has occurred, often in the form of a letter from a doctor. In the current chaotic environment of the coronavirus pandemic, getting a letter from a doctor will be difficult, if not impossible. Requiring your agent under a power of attorney to seek out a doctor to get a certification of incapacity will only add to their tasks and delay their ability to act on your behalf.  Consider changing the POA so that it can take effect immediately if needed.
  • Health Care Proxy. A health care proxy allows you to appoint someone else to act as your agent for medical decisions. It will ensure that your medical treatment instructions are carried out. Without a health care proxy, your doctor may be required to provide you with medical treatment that you would have refused if you were able to do so. Usually, the person who is appointed to act as your agent would confer with the doctors in person. That will likely be impossible during the coronavirus pandemic because family members often are not allowed in the hospital with sick patients. You need to make sure your health care proxy contains a provision that expressly authorizes electronic communication with your agent.

Consult with your attorney to make sure these documents and your other estate planning documents express your wishes during this time.

What’s a Health Care Proxy and Why Do I Need One?

If you become incapacitated, who will make your medical decisions? A health care proxy allows you to appoint someone else to act as your agent for medical decisions. It will ensure that your medical treatment instructions are carried out, and it is especially important to have a health care proxy if you and your family may disagree about treatment. Without a health care proxy, your doctor may be required to provide you with medical treatment that you would have refused if you were able to do so.

In general, a health care proxy takes effect only when you require medical treatment and a physician determines that you are unable to communicate your wishes concerning treatment. How this works exactly can depend on the laws of the particular state and the terms of the health care proxy itself. If you later become able to express your own wishes, you will be listened to and the health care proxy will have no effect.

If you are interested in drawing up a health care proxy document, contact your attorney.