Resources for estate planning and medical advanced directives

October 30, 2014 | Pam Leibfried

In yesterday’s blog post, my colleague Jess Bedsole reviewed some of the components of estate plans. Today, I’ll review some of the resources that can help you to complete your estate plan in an efficient and cost-effective manner.

Having your healthcare proxies and an estate plan in place will make it easier for your family to manage during the difficult days before and after your death. If everyone concerned knows that the decisions being made by your healthcare proxy and estate executor reflect your wishes, a lot of trauma and strife – and potential family estrangements – can be avoided. But how do you get the ball rolling? Below are some resources and tips to get you started.

Do you need a lawyer?

Although there are do-it-yourself options for wills, it’s generally safest to consult an attorney to make sure that everything is set up correctly and that the particular rules for your state are taken into account. The LiveStrong cancer organization recommends that the only people who should even consider writing their own will are people who have very small, simple estates that will be given to only one or two beneficiaries. And even then, they recommend that you have a lawyer review the document after you’ve created it just to be sure that all the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted.

Legal resources through your employer

Many businesses offer a benefit providing legal services for their employees through companies like Hyatt Legal Services or ARAG. They provide you access to lawyers in your locality at a discounted rate or at no charge, depending on your company’s policy coverage and the complexity of your legal needs. My former employer offered such a service, and the attorney set up a will, trust, power of attorney and healthcare proxy documents for me at no charge. I paid a small fee to the county recorder of deeds to transfer ownership of my condominium into the trust that the lawyer set up for me, but paid nothing to the lawyer himself.

Referrals and resources through organizations and associations

Some advocacy organizations offer legal advice or referrals to attorneys that specialize in the planning needs of families with a special healthcare or estate need. Some examples are Triage Cancer and the National Cancer Legal Services Network, which provide legal resources for cancer patients; the Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for the rights of lesbians and gays; and hospices, which often have advisors to help their clients make end-of-life plans. The American Bar Association provides an overview of estate planning on their website and many state and local legal associations will provide referrals or a list of their members who practice near you.

Preparing for your appointment

You can make your legal appointments go more smoothly if you come prepared. Some of the recommendations your lawyer will make depend on the size of your estate, so compiling a list of your assets and liabilities before your appointment can save time. It also helps if you have thought through some of the things you want reflected in your final estate plan and healthcare proxy documents:

  • Who do you want to take care of your children?
  • Who do you want to take care of your pets?
  • Who do you want to make medical decisions for you if you can’t make them yourself?
  • Who do you want to handle your finances if you are sick and incapacitated?
  • Who do you want to handle your estate after your death?
  • Who should inherit your money? Home? Collectibles? Family heirlooms?

A great tool for thinking through end-of-life options is the Five Wishes booklet from Aging with Dignity. It is intended to be a do-it-yourself living will, and is legally recognized in 42 states and the District of Columbia. But you can also use Five Wishes simply as an aid in thinking through your wishes in different medical situations. And that makes it a great tool to help you and your attorney review your wishes and the provisions and instructions you want in your living will, medical power of attorney designations and other end-of-life planning documents. The booklet also includes suggestions for how to discuss your wishes with family members. And it’s inexpensive. There is a $5 fee for a single Five Wishes booklet, but you can get multiple copies for a discounted price, and it is sometimes available through hospices or cancer survivorship programs on a complimentary basis. It is available in 26 languages and there is an online version too. A sample version is available for viewing here.

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