PLANNING FOR LIFE
For most people, it is perfectly natural to think about estate planning only in terms of planning for death. While planning for your death is very important, if that is all you plan for, your planning can quickly become woefully inadequate. As medical knowledge and technology have improved over the decades, so too has modern medicine's ability to keep people alive for much longer.
At first blush, staying alive longer would seem to be a good thing. And for many people, it is. However, simply living longer does not always result in ideal circumstances. Longevity coupled with physical or mental incapacity can be extremely challenging if you fail to make arrangements for someone to assist you during that period of time. On the other hand, with proper incapacity planning, you can rest assured knowing that your affairs are in good hands, out of the public eye, and being handled without the expense of lawyers, courts, and unnecessary complications.
WHAT IS INCAPACITY?
Before we discuss how to plan for incapacity, it is important to clarify what it means to be incapacitated. Tennessee laws do not define capacity or incapacity instead, Tennessee conservatorship statutes define a “person with a disability” as follows:
“Any person eighteen (18) years of age or older determined by the court to be in need of partial or full supervision, protection, and assistance by reason of mental illness, physical illness or injury, developmental disability, or other mental or physical incapacity.”
From a purely practical perspective, incapacity can be described as an ongoing condition where you simply do not have the mental ability to take care of routine tasks for yourself without assistance from someone else. Such tasks might include paying your bills, cooking your meals, bathing, grooming or dressing yourself, taking your own medications, or being unable to protect yourself from financial or physical exploitation.
So does a will help you if you become incapacitated? The short answer is no. A will is not any help if you become incapacitated. To provide some level of incapacity planning in your will-based estate plan, you must obtain additional legal documents, including at least a financial power of attorney and an advance directive.
FINANCIAL POWER OF ATTORNEY
A financial power of attorney (POA) is a legal document that you sign before you become incapacitated that allows you to appoint a trusted individual to act as your agent (meaning the appointed individual can act on your behalf). In this document, you spell out what an agent may do: a general POA allows an agent to handle most of your financial affairs whereas a limited POA restricts an agent's actions to certain things or for a limited amount of time. Legally, your agent must act in your best interests when handling your property and legal affairs. A POA can, and in many cases should, grant the power to take the following actions:
- handle your deposit and banking accounts
- withdraw funds from your retirement accounts
- enter into contracts
- collect your mail
- deal with your various insurance companies
- make investment decisions on your behalf
- sell, mortgage, lease, and manage real property
You can also determine when your agent is allowed to act on your behalf. It can be restricted to only after you have become incapacitated (a springing POA) or take effect as soon as you sign the document (an immediate POA). When planning for your incapacity, it is important that your POA be durable, which means that your incapacity will not affect the validity or effectiveness of the document.
If you have a will-based estate plan and no financial POA (or an invalid one), your loved ones will have to go to court to have someone appointed to take care of these matters for you through a process known as guardianship or conservatorship. This can be a very costly, public, and time-consuming process for your loved ones during a stressful and emotional time.
An advance directive is a document or set of documents in which you can appoint an individual to act on your behalf regarding medical decisions and memorialize some of your medical and end-of-life wishes. Similar to a financial POA, a medical durable POA is one kind of advance directive that allows you to appoint an agent, often referred to as a medical or healthcare agent or proxy, who has the ability to make medical decisions on your behalf when you are unable to communicate your wishes yourself (i.e., if you are unconscious, even temporarily).
Another kind of advance directive is a living will, which is a legal document in which you can specify the kinds of end-of-life decisions that you want your doctors or healthcare agent to make on your behalf.
These documents are a critical component of making your estate plan incapacity proof. By naming someone you trust to make healthcare decisions for you, similar to the decisions you would have made if you could still communicate your wishes, you can ensure that you receive the care and medical treatment that is most appropriate for you.
If you do not have an advance healthcare directive, your loved ones will be forced to go to court and have a judge decide who can make medical decisions for you if you are not able to make or communicate your wishes.
TRUST-BASED ESTATE PLANNING AND INCAPACITY
For those who want to make their estate plans truly incapacity proof, a revocable living trust can be a powerful legal tool. This type of trust has become the foundation of many well-constructed estate plans in this country. Holding the property in this type of legal structure creates a great deal of flexibility to deal with incapacity issues as they arise.
For example, if you created a revocable living trust, named yourself as trustee, and transferred most of your property into the trust, you could use and enjoy your property just as you do today. But if you suddenly became incapacitated, a successor trustee (named by you beforehand in your trust document) could quickly and seamlessly step into your shoes as trustee to continue managing the trust property for your benefit throughout any period you were incapacitated. All of this could be accomplished outside of the courtroom, maintaining privacy and eliminating burdensome court and attorney fees in the process.
Do not forget that this incapacity planning is only as good as the individuals you choose to serve in these roles. If the person or people you named can no longer fulfill their responsibilities, you will need to change your legal documents as soon as possible to ensure that the best possible people are serving in these crucial roles.
Finally, it is important to remember that a trust-based plan should still include a will, financial POA, and advance healthcare directive. Each of these documents has important legal functions designed to address circumstances that a trust alone cannot.
By carefully crafting each of these legal documents with our help, you can feel confident that your loved ones and the property that you have worked your whole life to obtain will be in good hands if incapacity strikes. We are here to help you think through and implement each decision that goes into making your estate planning truly incapacity proof. Give us a call today.
Hiring a lawyer can be a stressful thing, however, the Law Offices of Charles R. Frazier helps clients achieve the peace of mind that comes with planning for the future. Our experienced estate planning attorney can help you create a brand-new estate plan or modify an existing one. We guide clients through their fears and concerns and then help them find peace of mind. We are committed to providing all clients with personal service and attention to their legal matters.