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By William T. Miller, Attorney at Law

What if? We do not like to think about the “what ifs” that revolve around our health, but the recent pandemic has brought certain issues surrounding unexpected disability to the forefront. What if I get sick or am severely injured in an accident? Will my family know what to do? Every attorney in the practice knows from experience that planning ahead can avoid a family crisis later.

Consider this scenario: You are 50 years old, divorced, or widowed, with grown children in their 20’s and parents in their 70’s. All of a sudden, you become extremely ill, lose consciousness, and are admitted to the hospital. You are not able to make decisions about your medical care, pay your bills, or manage your finances. If you have planned ahead and have the necessary paperwork in place, your family will know your wishes and be able to make decisions on your care and keep your finances straight until you recover.

If you have not taken the steps to complete advance directives and powers of attorney, your family members will be placed in the difficult situation of deciding on your care. If you have minor children or care for a loved one with special needs, the situation becomes even more tenuous. Will your parents make decisions for you? Your grown children? A spouse if you are remarried? During an especially stressful time, this can trigger family squabbles or divide the family as they argue over who is in charge of medical decisions and how finances should be handled. Worse yet, their decisions may not reflect what you would want to happen. And if your family members cannot reach a consensus, the situation may end up in court with a judge appointing a guardian – either a family member or an impartial third-party – to make decisions on your behalf.

We frequently see scenarios where families have waited too long to plan for unexpected physical or mental disability. From a married couple or long-term partners where one person suffers from mental illness and refuses to seek help, to blended families arguing over who should be in charge, these types of fights can easily tear families apart. The pandemic has made planning ahead even more important.

What Should You Do Now?
I strongly recommend you complete advance directives to outline the medical care you wish to receive and who you wish to make decisions about your care should you be unable to communicate your wishes. If a standard form does not allow you to fully specify your wishes, add a statement to clarify them. For example, while you might automatically say you do not wish to be put on a ventilator to prolong your life, does an illness like COVID-19, where a ventilator would be a temporary treatment option, change your response? Likewise, you should have powers of attorney in place to allow someone you trust to make financial decisions on your behalf. If you were hospitalized for four months and unable to pay your bills, who would you want to take care of that for you?

If you are appointed as a guardian, you will need to understand your rights and responsibilities, including when taking legal action to protect the interests of the person you represent. Learn more about guardianships.

If you are 18 years of age or older, you should have both advance directives and powers of attorney in place. You should also let your loved ones know where this paperwork is so they can get to it quickly, if needed. (A safe deposit box is not usually the best place for these documents.)

Contact Brinkley Walser Stoner today to schedule an appointment with an estate planning attorney to ensure you and your loved ones are protected.