Pubs in Ireland closed two days before St. Patrick’s Day. Schools and businesses across Wisconsin, the United States, and the world are closing. Professional and college sports have been cancelled. In Wisconsin, courts are closing until at least April 30 for many types of legal actions. While in situations like the grocery store, people are trying to impose some sort of social distancing protocol.
Now is not the time to panic. But it is the time to prepare. We are facing an unprecedented situation. It is difficult to know what to do and hard not to feel at least a little scared. The Coronavirus / COVID 19 seems to be taking over the entire globe at a rapid pace.
Estate Planning While Social Distancing
Many of us have a hard time sitting still in times of crisis. We like to do something to make the situation a little bit better – for ourselves and for our community.
As a lawyer who specializes in estate planning and probate, I strongly recommend the following to be better prepared while you are social distancing yourself from others.
Make sure you have a Health Care Power of Attorney that is ready to work for you.
A Health Care Power of Attorney names a person who will advocate for your medical care if you become incapacitated.
You have the right to decide the quality of life you want. Your Health Care POA is the best way to direct your medical care if you are incapacitated.
If you have a Health Care POA, review it and make sure the person you name as your agent is ready, willing, and able to be your advocate. Make sure you have a backup named who is also ready, willing, and able. Upload it so you can access it on your phone. Email it to your agents and your doctors. Carry a note in your wallet with their contact information.
If you do not already have a Health Care Power of Attorney, I strongly recommend you contact an attorney who specializes in this area of law and schedule a phone appointment to get the process moving. It is always better to work with a professional with experience in this area of law. You will end up with a better product and ensure that it is executed correctly. I have seen many power of attorney documents that were not properly executed – which becomes problematic if you are incapacitated and need someone to advocate for your care.
However, if you are not able to meet with an attorney or cannot afford one, and if are a Wisconsin resident, you can download a state form here: Wisconsin Department of Health Services. I assume many other states have their own form. In Wisconsin, your Health Care Power of Attorney needs to be witnessed by two people. The witnesses must be over 18, neither can be your health care professional and neither can be named as your agent.
Execute a Revocable Living Trust (a “Trust”).
Having a Trust and avoiding the costly delay of a court-run probate just got a whole lot more important.
As health professional instruct us to stay home as much as possible. We do not know how the court system is going to function over coming months. If you are relying on a will (or don’t have an estate plan), your loved ones will likely have significant delay in accessing their inheritance as they wait for the courts to probate your estate.
In contrast, a Trust is a private contract between you and your loved ones. When you pass, your Trust assets seamlessly pass to your loved ones without the hassle of the courts. If you lose capacity, your successor trustee can step into your shoes and manage your financial affairs. And while you are alive and have capacity, you retain full control over your Trust assets.
You need to work with a professional to create and fund your Trust to ensure that it is done correctly. Too often I have clients come into my office thinking everything was handled because their deceased loved one had a Trust – only to find out that the assets were never put into the Trust and we have to go to court to probate the assets.
Check your beneficiary designations.
Financial assets and property can be transferred outside of probate through beneficiary designations. You can name someone to inherit your life insurance policies, your retirement accounts, and your bank accounts. You can also name someone to inherit your home and avoid probate of a significant asset.
Although beneficiary designations can be a good way to transfer wealth and avoid the uncertainty of the courts, there can be significant problems with relying on beneficiary designations. The main problem with relying on beneficiary designations instead of a Trust is that they do not easily accommodate contingencies if a named beneficiary dies before you and your estate might end up in probate anyway.
Many people are mistaken about who is actually named as their beneficiary. Maybe you set up your retirement account when you first got your job and before you were married. You could be disinheriting your spouse unintentionally.
Beneficiary designations are also difficult because the person inheriting has to know they are the beneficiary and what company to contact to obtain the funds.
If you are relying on beneficiary designations, double check to make sure the right people are named. It usually a simple process of calling the financial institution where your funds are held and asking them. I recommend asking them to mail you a confirmation as well so that you can give a copy to your beneficiaries.
Social Distancing: At least for the time being, life has changed significantly.
While we make sure we have enough food and figure out how to exist while social distancing, we can also make sure that our estate is in order. It seems that life is about to get a lot more difficult. But you can take some action to make sure that if things get really bad, your medical wishes will be followed and your estate is kept out of probate.
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