Edited by Joshua Iversen, Certified Financial Planner
As difficult as it may be to imagine your life being any different than it is right now, there is a chance that you may not always be able to make legal decisions on your own. That being said, to draw up all the legal documents that specify everything from the kind of care you are willing to undergo during a medical emergency to the individuals you would like to be your heirs, you must still possess the legal capacity to make those decisions. By taking care of all this legal work earlier on in life, you can save yourself and your family a considerable amount of trouble down the road.
Though many of the decisions you will need to make as part of the estate planning process can seem far removed from your present circumstances, each of those decisions will serve as a way to guide your family and protect your wishes during the latter years of your life. Keeping that in mind, it is important that you have all the time you need to carefully consider the choices you will need to make.
It is easy to understand why some people want to put these decisions off until a later date. When engaging in estate planning, you will need to make decisions about things like the level of care you want to receive in the event of a medical emergency, who you would like to hand over legal authority to during your golden years, and how you want your estate to be divided between your heirs. All of these decisions can be incredibly difficult and emotional to make.
The fact is that you will need to make these decisions at some point, and you will be better off getting all of this out of the way sooner rather than later. Once your wishes have been formalized in the various legal documents that make up your estate plan (your living will, durable powers of attorney, beneficiary designations, living trusts, etc.), you will be able to rest assured that the members of your family have what they need to care for you and your estate.
It is important to remember that you can only create and sign legally binding documents so long as you meet the legally defined threshold for mental competence. That means that if your health were to suddenly decline, your family would not be able to do things like access your health or financial records without a court order. Though a loved one will still probably be able to acquire the legal status of conservatorship for you, the actual process can be expensive, time-consuming, and stressful for family members. By taking care of this while you are still in good health, you can ensure that your family will be able to access your information and make decisions on your behalf when it matters most.
Aside from giving legal authority to one of your family members, you will also be able to make important decisions about where you would like to live during the latter years of your life. For instance, if you do not want to be admitted to a nursing home/assisted living facility, you will be able to specify that you want to remain in your home so long as it remains medically feasible for you to do so. In any event, you will be able to express your wishes and arrange a specific list of residential options that you would agree to should your health decline.
The fact that your wishes will have been formalized in several binding legal documents can also serve to help maintain family harmony during the later stages of your life. Since there will be little room for misinterpretation of your wishes, your family can be confident that they are always following your wishes. Though it may not have been a problem for your family anyway, these definitive legal documents often prevent disputes that might have otherwise arisen between family members.
When you are ready to move forward with the estate planning process, it will be in your best interests to consult with an experienced attorney who can help you make sure that you have a comprehensive plan in place for your family. Estate planning can be incredibly complicated, and an attorney will be able to explain every facet of the process before helping you make an informed decision about the various documents that will make up your estate plan. By working with an attorney who has been through this process before, you can improve your chances of getting through with relative ease what can often be a stressful and time-consuming task.
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