Estate Planning: Put Your Wishes On Paper

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By Feona Sharhran Huff
Do you have a written plan in place that expresses who you want to take care of your kids or how you want to dispose of your worldly possessions should you become incapacitated, terminally ill or die? If you answered “no” to having an estate plan, you’re not alone. According to Gary B. Garland, Esq., of the law firm Garland & Ehling LLC in New York City, that’s not good. “Estate planning is the single most important thing you could do after choice of mate, the number of kids you want to have and buying a home,” he affirms.
Bernard A. Krooks, Esq., of the law firm Littman Krooks, LLP in New York City says when he meets with clients, it’s all about figuring out what’s important to them – in which case, they always say their family is the number one priority. “Then I’ll ask them what have they done to make sure their family gets what they worked so hard for,” Krooks says. “They invariably say they haven’t done anything yet. I tell them they need to do estate planning.”
Both estate planning attorneys agree that there are several basic components to estate planning: A will, a living will, a health care power of attorney (or health care proxy), a durable power of attorney, and a HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act).
A will disposes of your assets. In other words, it breaks down how you want to leave your money and possessions to someone. For a single parent, Krooks says this document is especially important because it allows you to appoint a guardian for minor children. If someone isn’t named, there is a guardianship proceeding and the kids may end up going to someone you wouldn’t want to have them. The other important thing to note about a will is that this document is only carried out upon your death.
A living will, however, expresses your wishes in the event that you become incapacitated or terminally ill. “I often tell my clients that a living will is a gift to your family because there is no decision for them to make,” Garland says. “It takes the burden off of the family because there is no discretion.”
A health care power of attorney (or health care proxy) allows you to appoint a person (at least 18 years of age) to make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re unable to express them. This is not to be confused with a living will, says Garland, which address issues such as brain death or terminal illness. He clarifies that this document deals with a situation in which someone has a stroke or is medicated and can’t make a decision at that time.
Garland defines a durable power of attorney as the person who transacts on your behalf for business matters. “A business matter could be signing a check, selling a house, gifting for Medicaid purposes,” he points out. “You don’t have to be disabled to do this.” He gives the example of someone who goes away for a cruise and a pipe bursts in the home. “Your agent could pay your plumber out of your checkbook,” he explains. However, he offers, “if you have named someone on your bank account, you don’t need a durable power of attorney.”
As far as a Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act or HIPAA goes, Garland says it has become very important over the last few years. “You go to the doctor now and ask how your mom is doing, he won’t tell you,” says Garland. However, if you hand the doctor the HIPAA authorization form, only then are you privy to private medical information. “If a medical provider reveals protected information to someone without a HIPAA authorization, they get heavily fined,” he reasons as the rationale behind the protection.
An estate plan is a vital tool to protect your loved ones and all that you’ve worked hard for. Seeking legal consultation to put your wishes down on paper will cost you, too. Garland says lawyers can charge by the hour or a flat rate like him. While this can wind up costing you a couple of hundred dollars or a couple of thousand dollars – this, of course, depending on the complexity of your situation – Krooks says it’s also expensive if you don’t have an estate plan. “If you don’t engage in estate planning and you become incapacitated, you can have the court appoint a legal guardian for you, but that could cost 10s of thousands of dollars in court and lawyers fees,” he warns. “It’s an invasion of privacy, it’s complicated, and it’s time-consuming.”
Garland warns against procrastinating on your estate plan. He believes you’re safer if you start the process earlier. “If someone comes to me in an emergency, I do what I can,” he says. “But if a person comes to me ahead of time, we can generally come out with a much better result.”
Looking for assistance with your estate planning needs? Let the following Web sites be a starting point:
EstatePlanningLawFirms.com
This site is an online directory of estate planning attorneys. Find a lawyer in your area by typing in your zip code.
LegalMatch.com 
The site matches you with lawyers appropriate for your specific situation. You also have the opportunity to review their experience, track record, availability and fee structure. 
Lawyers.com 
This site allows you to find a lawyer, ask questions online, research legal topics and get legal tips.