Nobody wants to think about dying or becoming incapacitated by injury or illness, but not preparing for such things places a burden on the loved ones left to make those decisions in a time of crisis.
According to the American Bar Association, 55 percent of Americans don’t have a will or estate plan at the time of death.
There are several documents every adult should have, and more arrangements that can be made as age and assets increase.
In case of sudden injury or severe illness, a living will and a power of attorney for health care allow people to make their own medical decisions ahead of time and select a trusted person to authorize the level of care provided.
Living wills can have very specific guidelines such as whether to continue life support after brain death, or after an injury that causes complete and permanent dependence on others for personal care.
No matter how explicit a living will is, there may be gray areas requiring judgement calls to be made by a trusted person with a power of attorney for health care.
“She is at a stage in her Alzheimer’s that even if we discussed [her care] with her, she’s not really logical,” said Delta student Deborah Jackson James, who is caring for her 89-year-old mother who has Alzheimer’s disease.
Living wills and medical powers of attorney are of particular importance when there is family strife, or for same-sex couples who may not have recognized legal ties.
There are two common ways to distribute assets after death.
“She had a will in place and she had always planned to come to California to retire,” said James of her mother’s preparations.
A will names an executor to perform the legal processes of probate, oversee the payment of outstanding debts and distribute the remaining property to the named beneficiaries.
Wills are especially important for parents because they name guardians and people to manage property for minor children.
“She did do one thing shortly after she retired, she added my sister to all of her banking accounts, and that was a smart decision,” said James.
Another legal consideration is born from the digital age in which most people have online accounts that are inaccessible by loved ones who do not possess user names and passwords.
This information can be treated as any other asset by including the desired disposition within a will.
A living trust can be used in addition to a will and has different benefits, but is more complicated to make and should involve a lawyer.
Living trusts create a legal entity to hold a person’s property on their behalf, but provides immediate access to that property upon a person’s death or incapacitation without having to pass through probate.
“He has a will and a living trust. It took a lot of talking to him to get the living trust, but he’s finally done it,” said Delta student Adrienne Jelley, who lives with her 85-year-old grandfather-in-law.
Jelley explained the trust was necessary due to complex family dynamics.
Making legal arrangements is important, but having the difficult discussions with relatives is as crucial.
Illness, injury and death can happen at any moment and often involve strong emotional reactions for friends and family members, which may impede their ability to make thoughtful decisions about medical care or fair distribution of assets.
If preparations are made and expressed to loved ones in advance, it can prevent arguments and bitterness between otherwise rational adults.
“It makes it hard for the children, or whatever family is left behind, especially if they [the elderly or infirm] are not able to make decisions for themselves,” said James.