To many, the idea of estate planning sounds like something distant and daunting. For the 133 million Americans living with a chronic illness, it might seem a lot less distant, and a lot more daunting. What should you do if you or a loved one is living with a chronic illness? The following “BASIC” tips apply generally as good estate planning practices but are particularly helpful for those families dealing with chronic illness: Be Specific, Automate, Simplify, Inform, and Commit. Careful planning can help ensure that you and your assets will be protected.
It will be difficult for your agents and attorney to respect your wishes if your wishes aren’t clear. It is crucial that you document, in a written legal statement, exactly what should happen if your condition worsens. For example, you may want your power of attorney documents to remain valid if your illness renders you incompetent or otherwise disabled. Be sure to discuss this with your attorney, as state laws sometimes require special language to ensure this durability. You should also consider adding special provisions to allow your agent to adapt to needs arising from your illness. If your condition could make it difficult to navigate your home, you might authorize your agent to improve accessibility, for example, by adding ramps and railings, even if such improvements would be expensive.
A durable health care power of attorney, if drafted correctly, will specify those types of medical decisions your agent can make on your behalf, even if you become incapacitated.
Tailoring your health care power of attorney to your illness is also important. A health care power of attorney is a specialized type of power of attorney; a traditional power of attorney grants a person broad authority to handle all types of financial matters and is usually not valid if you become incapacitated, whereas a durable health care power of attorney, if drafted correctly, will specify those types of medical decisions your agent can make on your behalf, even if you become incapacitated. Carefully differentiate in your living will which standards are to apply in acute situations versus chronic situations. Do you want experimental or nontraditional treatment? Do you want to be a tissue donor? How much treatment do you want? Don’t leave your agents guessing; the more specific you can be, the better.
The last thing you want to think about if your condition worsens is your finances. To minimize the chance of forgetting payments and making mistakes, automate as many of your accounts as possible. Have income deposited directly into checking accounts, and have expenses charged against those accounts. Then if your illness flares up or you are hospitalized, your day-today finances won’t collapse. With most payments and deposits running automatically, you would be able to devote your attention to your health.
Consider making a centralized list of important information, including: medical and emergency contact information, current health status, medications, allergies, and contact information for important advisers, such as lawyers, accountants, bankers, financial advisers, and household staff. Make sure to list names, relationships, phone numbers, and e-mail and residential addresses. If your illness could make it difficult to remember things, you might aggregate your passwords and security codes, just to be safe. Collect all important financial information into one comprehensive document, and consolidate as many of your accounts as possible. That way you, your agents, and your attorney can easily monitor your money and make sure that no one is taking advantage of your illness.
Your attorney and agents, or those authorized to act on your behalf, will be better equipped to assist you if they understand the nature of your condition. It is thus imperative that you provide them with as much information as possible. There are many organizations that endeavor to help people with specific chronic-illnesses. These organizations often have educational materials that you can use to get your attorney and agents up to speed. You may want to meet regularly with your attorney. This can help your attorney track changes in your condition, and as an independent professional, your attorney may be able to recognize potential risk factors and protect you from abuse.
Living with a chronic illness can be ‘overwhelming. It might be especially difficult to talk about your death or disability with loved ones, and if you are receiving intensive treatment for your illness, you might be short on time or energy. When meeting with your lawyer, break down larger tasks into smaller, manageable pieces. Take your time, and only do as much as you can handle—it is better to have just a few important documents signed and finalized than to take on too much at once and not finish anything.
If you have a chronic illness, it is important that you start the estate planning process as soon as possible. A little preparation now will save you serious headaches later. Following these few simple steps and having a conversation with your attorney now will give you peace of mind and allow you to focus fully on your recovery when you experience health issues,