When people think of “estate planning,” they often consider only what will happen with their assets upon death and, if they have minor children, who will care for them. However, death planning is only one piece of the estate planning puzzle. A comprehensive estate plan should include not only a will or living trust, but also documents that will protect you and provide direction to your loved ones in the event of your mental incapacity.
In Wisconsin, there are 3 essential health care documents you should have in place as part of your estate plan, regardless of your age:
1) Your health care power of attorney (not to be confused with a financial power of attorney) authorizes your designated agent to make medical decisions for you. A comprehensive health care power of attorney can avoid the need for a guardianship proceeding (a/k/a “living probate”) in which the court appoints a legal guardian of your person during any period of mental incapacity. Although the statutory form is effective only upon incapacity, a custom health care power of attorney can become effective immediately, providing greater flexibility when you wish to have a loved one communicate on your behalf even if you are not incapacitated.
2) Your living will (a/k/a “directive to physicians”) states your care wishes about life-support machines or feeding tubes if you become terminally ill or you lapse into a persistent vegetative state (permanent coma). It is important to designate a health care agent who you are confident will honor your wishes as stated in your living will. For example, if you do not wish to be kept alive artificially but you know your mother would keep you alive for years on life support, then she may not be the right person to designate as your health care agent.
3) Your HIPAA authorization (a/k/a authorization for release of protected health information) authorizes the release of your health information to designated persons. Without an active HIPAA authorization in place, even your spouse may be unable to call the hospital to see if you’re there! Although you may have signed HIPAA authorization forms at your doctor’s office, when you read the fine print you will likely find that this form authorizes only a single individual to access your information, is valid only within a particular network and will expire after a specified period of time (often after one year). A comprehensive HIPAA authorization can designate several HIPAA authorized recipients, will be valid anywhere in the country and won’t expire until after your death.
Remember that estate planning isn’t about you, but rather it’s about making sure your loved ones aren’t left with a mess to clean up after you die or in the event of your mental incapacity. While financial matters are certainly important, be sure not to overlook the importance of health care planning. After all, you could be worth zero and still need someone to make medical decisions for you!
At Horn & Johnsen SC, we help individuals and families create comprehensive estate plans, including wills and revocable living trusts, with the ultimate goal of making things as easy as possible upon death or incapacity. If you are considering creating an estate plan, contact us today to set up your free initial consultation.