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Estate: Clearing Up Estate Document Confusion

Aug 17, 2007
Few topics confuse investors more than figuring out what estate-related documents they need. Living Wills, Living Trusts, and Powers of Attorney are just a few of the terms that most find hard to define, let alone understand. But being comfortable with these terms and what each one can do for you is important, and can make the difference between your wishes being followed or creating a nightmare.

A Living Will is a document that is designed to convey your end-of-life wishes regarding medical care. Many people have strong feelings about being kept alive by machines and feeding tubes. The Living Will allows you to express your 'will' concerning your end-of-life preferences. Please note that the Living Will doesn't give any other person the right to make medical decisions on your behalf.

A Living Trust, on the other hand, has nothing to do with end-of-life medical decisions. A Living Trust is a vehicle that controls the management of your assets while you are alive and how they are distributed after your death. Plus, the assets owned by the Living Trust don't have to go through probate before they are transferred to your heirs.

So how should a Living Will and a Living Trust apply to you? Every adult should have a Living Will, regardless of age. A great deal of stress and potential conflict is removed from your loved ones when you clearly state your end-of-life wishes. But not every adult needs a Living Trust.

For those with very simple estates consisting of a home and a few other accounts, proper account registration and transfer-on-death provisions can solve most estate problems. But if you have out-of-state property, are remarried, have children with special needs, or otherwise wish to simplify the settling of your estate for your those you leave behind, then a Living Trust is something you should look into.

Another very confusing topic concerns Powers of Attorney. Here is a simple way to understand how they work in general. An attorney is someone who acts on your behalf. A Power of Attorney, then, is just a way for you to legally name who you want to act in your behalf.

You determine when that person can act on your behalf. They can do so immediately, only if you should become incapacitated, or both now and during incapacity. A Power of Attorney is only in force while you are alive.

For most estate planning purposes, you need two important Powers of Attorney. The first is a Medical Power of Attorney. This allows you to choose who will make your medical decisions should you become incapacitated. Only your spouse has this authority without such a document. But what if something happens to your spouse, or you're single? This document can relieve a lot of headaches in these situations.

The second Power of Attorney you need is a Durable Power of Attorney for Assets. Not even your spouse can make financial decisions for you if you're incapacitated. This important document lets you predetermine who can manage your assets when you are no longer able to do so yourself.

Without this document, should you develop dementia or end up in a coma, someone would have to petition the court to be appointed your guardian. This process is expensive, extremely stressful and completely unnecessary, if you have a Durable Power of Attorney for Assets in place.

It's important to remember that these Powers of Attorney can be worded so they only become active should you become incapacitated. While you're competent, you regain complete control.

So every adult should at least have a Living Will, a Medical Power of Attorney and a Durable Power of Attorney for Assets. Many times you can get the forms for a Living Will and even a Medical Power of Attorney free of charge at your local hospital. All you have to do is fill out the form and sign it in front of two witnesses. In some states you may have to have it notarized.

A Durable Power of Attorney for Assets should only cost around $100 and can be done by any attorney. There are even kits available online for those do-it-yourselfers.
About the Author
Nationally-syndicated financial columnist and Certified Financial Planner Jeffrey Voudrie provides personal, in-depth money management services and advice to select private clients throughout the USA. He will answer your financial question FREE at http://www.guardingyourwealth.com.
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