This is the first in an ongoing series of articles discussing the true costs and consequences of failed estate planning. The series highlights a few of the most common—and costly—planning mistakes I encounter with clients.
When it comes to estate planning, most people automatically think about taking legal steps to ensure the right people inherit their stuff when they die. And these people aren’t wrong.
Indeed, putting strategies in place to protect and pass on your wealth and other assets is a fundamental part of the planning equation. However, providing for the proper distribution of your assets upon your death is just one part of the process.
And it’s not even the most critical part.
Planning that’s focused solely on who gets what when you die is ignoring the fact that death isn’t the only thing you must prepare for. You must also consider that at some point before your eventual death, you could be incapacitated by accident or illness.
Like death, each of us is at constant risk of experiencing a devastating accident or disease that renders us incapable of caring for ourselves or our loved ones. But unlike death, which is by definition a final outcome, incapacity comes with an uncertain outcome and timeframe.
Incapacity can be a temporary event from which you eventually recover, or it can be the start of a long and costly event that ultimately ends in your death. Indeed, incapacity can drag out over many years, leaving you and your family in an agonizing limbo. This uncertainty is what makes incapacity planning so incredibly important.
In fact, in many respects, your incapacity can be a far greater burden for loved ones than your death. This is true not only in terms of incapacity’s potentially ruinous financial costs, but also for the emotional trauma, contentious court battles, and internal conflict your family may endure if you fail to address incapacity in your plan.
The goal of effective estate planning is to keep your family out of court and out of conflict no matter what happens to you. So if you only plan for your death, you’re leaving your family—and yourself—extremely vulnerable to potentially tragic consequences.
Where to start
Planning for incapacity requires a different mindset and different tools than planning for death. If you’re incapacitated by illness or injury, you’ll still be alive when these planning strategies take effect. What’s more, the legal authority you grant others to manage your incapacity is only viable while you remain alive and unable to make decisions about your own welfare.
If you regain the cognitive ability to make your own decisions, for instance, the legal power you granted others is revoked. The same goes if you should eventually succumb to your condition: your death renders these powers null and void.
To this end, the first thing you should ask yourself is, “If I’m ever incapacitated and unable to care for myself, who would I want making decisions on my behalf?” Specifically, you’ll be selecting the person, or persons, you want making your healthcare, financial, and legal decisions for you until you either recover or pass away.
You must name someone
The most important thing to remember is that you must choose someone. If you don’t legally name someone to make these decisions during your incapacity, the court will choose someone for you. And this is where things can get extremely difficult for your loved ones.
Although laws differ by state, in the absence of proper estate planning, the court will typically appoint a guardian or conservator to make these decisions on your behalf. This person could be a family member you’d never want managing your affairs, or a professional guardian who charges exorbitant fees. Either way, the choice would be out of your hands.
Furthermore, the process of naming a guardian can be quite time consuming, costly, and emotionally draining for your family. If you’re lying unconscious in a hospital bed, the last thing you’d want is to waste time or impose additional hardship on your loved ones. And this is assuming your family members agree about what’s in your best interest.
For example, if your family members disagree about the course of your medical treatment, this could lead to ugly court battles between your loved ones. Such conflicts can tear your family apart and drain your estate’s finances. And in the end, the individual the court eventually appoints may choose treatment options, such as invasive surgeries, that are the exact opposite of what you’d actually want.
This potential turmoil and expense can be easily avoided through proper estate planning. An effective plan would give the individuals you’ve chosen immediate authority to make your medical, financial, and legal decisions, without the need for court intervention. What’s more, the plan can provide clear guidance about your wishes, so there’s no mistake or conflict about how these vital decisions should be made.
What won’t work
Determining which planning tools you should use to grant and guide this decision-making authority depends entirely on your personal circumstances. There are several options available, but choosing what’s best is something you should ultimately decide after consulting with an experienced lawyer.
That said, I can tell you one planning tool that’s totally worthless when it comes to your incapacity: a will. A will only goes into effect upon your death, and then it merely governs how your assets should be divided, so having a will does nothing to keep your family out of court and out of conflict in the event of your incapacity.
The proper tools for the job
There are multiple planning vehicles to choose from when creating an incapacity plan. And this shouldn’t be just a single document; instead, it should include a comprehensive variety of multiple planning tools, each serving a different purpose.
Though the planning strategies you ultimately put in place will be based on your particular circumstances, it’s likely that your incapacity plan will include some, or all, of the following:
Healthcare power of attorney: An advanced directive that grants an individual of your choice the immediate legal authority to make decisions about your medical treatment in the event of your incapacity.
Living will: An advanced directive that provides specific guidance about how your medical decisions should be made during your incapacity.
Durable financial power of attorney: A planning document that grants an individual of your choice the immediate legal authority to make decisions related to the management of your finances, real estate, and business interests.
Revocable living trust: A planning document that immediately transfers control of all assets held by the trust to a person of your choosing, to be used for your benefit in the event of your incapacity. The trust can include legally binding instructions for how your care should be managed and even spell out specific conditions that must be met for you to be deemed incapacitated.
Don’t let a bad situation become much worse
You may be powerless to prevent your potential incapacity, but proper estate planning can at least give you control over how your life and assets will be managed if it does occur. Moreover, such planning can prevent your family from enduring needless trauma, conflict, and expense during this already trying time.
If you’ve yet to plan for incapacity, it’s my hope you’ll take care of that right away by meeting with a trusted advisor who can counsel you on the proper planning vehicles to put in place and help you select the individuals best suited to make such critical decisions on your behalf. If you already have planning strategies in place, I recommend you have your plan reviewed to make sure it’s been properly set up, maintained, and updated.
This article is a service of Beverly R. Davidek. I don’t just draft documents; I ensure that families and business owners make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for themselves and the people they love.