When clients come to me to discuss estate planning, the first thing they have in mind is a last will and testament. And yes, that document is a cornerstone of end-of-life planning. However, I usually start these meetings asking if the clients have any “advance directives.” Most clients just give me a puzzled look; a few mutter some vague ideas about a living will.
The phrase “advance directives” is a generic term for legal documents that appoint trusted people to act on your behalf during life. The goal of advance directives is to have decision-makers ready if you become incapable of handling your own finances and health care. These documents are an essential part of any comprehensive estate plan, but they are sometimes overlooked. In Indiana, advance directives commonly include:
Power of attorney: Sometimes referred to as a “general durable” or “durable” power of attorney, this document appoints a representative to handle financial matters on your behalf. This document can also contain health care authority, but it is sometimes preferable to omit this health care information, and instead prepare a separate health care directive (discussed next).
Health care power of attorney/appointment of health care representative: Appoints a representative (and, hopefully, at least one successor representative) to make health care decisions on your behalf. The person appointed in this document is the person who has legal authority to withdraw life support in the case of terminal illness.
Living will: Expresses your preference to have treatment and life support withdrawn if you are close to death. Most people do not realize that a health care agent can override this document, so a living will is only a formal expression of your wishes. The most important thing related to the withdrawal of life support is the choice of the person you are asking to make this decision on your behalf in your health care directive.
Funeral planning declaration: Clarifies who will have funeral planning authority, and sets out any specific wishes you may have regarding funeral, memorial and burial arrangements.
If you are considering preparing or updating your estate planning, be sure to discuss advance directives with your lawyer as an important part of the process.