By Will Miller
Since mid-March of this year, we have all been living in the shadow of COVID-19. Although we all experience death during our lives, the pandemic has heightened awareness of human vulnerability and mortality, both for ourselves and our loved ones. We wonder what would happen if we became critically ill from the virus, how our illness would affect our family and friends, and what we can do to prepare for the possibility of grave illness or death.
Illness and death are morbid topics in the best of times, perhaps more so in the midst of a pandemic. However, the value of taking proactive steps to prepare for the worst is rarely more apparent than now. A comprehensive estate plan provides preparation for illness and end of life through advanced directives for incapacity and end-of-life treatment, as well as for instructions for the division of assets among loved ones at death.
An initial step toward such preparation is considering what decisions may need to be made regarding your medical care if you become incapacitated and unable to communicate your wishes. If you were unable to breathe due to COVID-19, would you want to be intubated and connected to a ventilator? What if your treating physician determined that you were not going to recover from the virus – would you want to be kept alive as long as possible, or would you want life support to be withheld or withdrawn? Questions concerning end-of-life medical treatment are relevant for many illnesses and conditions, but current events make us more mindful of such scenarios. An estate planning attorney can guide you through the process of considering and formalizing your decisions for end-of-life care.
One element of end-of-life decision involves selecting the people or person you trust to carry out your wishes if you become unable to do so yourself. For instance, with a health care power of attorney, you can designate one or more individuals to serve as your agent to make medical decisions regarding the selection and admission to a health care facility; approval of medications, treatments, and medical procedures; and to authorize the withholding or discontinuation of life support. In addition, appointing a health care agent may avoid disagreement, feuding and feelings of guilt among your loved ones.
Unlike a power of attorney, a living will enable you to provide instructions for end-of-life care rather than merely delegating those decisions to an agent. In a living will you can document whether you would want life support to be withheld or withdrawn if your physician determines that you will not recover from a terminal illness, permanent coma or severely diminished cognition. Alternatively, you can instruct your physician to provide maximum treatment to prolong your life as long as possible without regard to your condition. In the event that your living will and health care agent disagree in regard to end-of-life care, you can decide whether you would like your physician to follow the instructions of your agent over your living will, or vice versa.
An estate planning attorney can also assist you to make arrangements for management of your financial affairs during prolonged hospitalization. People who suffer from severe symptoms from COVID-19 often face long periods of isolation and treatment in a hospital. In the meantime, mortgages/ rent, car payments, insurance premiums, utilities, medical bills, and other expenses continue to accumulate. With a financial power of attorney, you can authorize an agent (such as a relative or spouse) to sell, manage, and make payments from your assets on your behalf. Depending on circumstances another option may be to add a trusted individual to a bank account in order to authorize him or her to make payments for you from the account.
Lastly, a Will should be considered to designate who would receive your assets upon your death and who would be placed in charge of overseeing the distribution of your estate and payment of final expenses. Another tool for estate transfer purposes is signing a transfer on death or pay on death designation at individual banks to direct where an account will be payable upon death.
We all hope to remain healthy and virus-free during COVID-19, and it is likely that the vast majority of us will emerge unscathed if proper precautions are taken. However, in this and many other instances, it is wise to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Whether or not the current pandemic necessitates end-of-life decision making, proper estate planning can ensure that we have done what we can to ease the burden on ourselves and our loved ones whenever we are faced with a health crisis.
The attorneys at Brinkley Walser Stoner are here to meet your legal needs. Please give us a call at 336-249-2101 or email us to schedule an (virtual) appointment.