Most people understand the importance of having a will. For young parents, it can provide them peace of mind that a trusted friend or loved one can step in as guardians of their children. Older individuals will want to determine who will receive their assets and resources once they have passed on.
But there is a frequently overlooked, yet quite essential, document that many people never get around to drafting - a power of attorney.
2 types of powers of attorney
There are different types of powers of attorney, but for purposes of this post, we will address medical and legal powers of attorney.
A medical power of attorney is sometimes referred to as a health care proxy. What this document does is designate a family member or friend to make your health care decisions when you are incapacitated and can no longer make them for yourself. Your health care proxy or power of attorney should ideally know your preferences for end-of-life care so that they are better able to carry out your wishes.
Alternatively, a durable legal power of attorney steps in to manage your financial and other affairs if you become incapacitated by dementia or other illnesses and can no longer make your own decisions.
You may choose the same individual to act as both, or you might select two different people. Someone who is an ace at business management might blanch at the idea of making medical decisions - and vice versa.
What caregivers need to know
If you have elderly parents or other relatives, it's important to have a frank conversation with them and find out whether they ever executed a will and these two very important additional documents.
These conversations are not usually easy to initiate because no one wants to dwell on their own or a loved one's mortality. Yet, making sure that your elderly loved ones have taken these steps is a kindness that can ensure their wishes are carried out to the letter.
Broaching the subject compassionately
Since this can be a tough topic, it's often a good idea to bring it up in a general conversation about your own estate-planning efforts. Take your mom out for a spa or shopping outing or your dad on a fishing daytrip and bring it up casually as you would any other topic.
The idea is to suss out what has and hasn't already been done. The best case scenario is that your parents have been diligent and have already drawn up wills and powers of attorney.
But even then, there are some things that should be considered. Couples often select their spouses as their powers of attorney. While this can sometimes work, it can also fail miserably in the following situations:
- Both spouses develop dementia or other debilitating conditions
- Both are injured or incapacitated in the same event, e.g., an auto accident
- The designated spouse is not emotionally or mentally able to rise to the occasion when needed
It's understandable that long-time spouses want to put their affairs in their other spouse's hands. After all, this is likely the person whom they trust most of all. But it can be impractical to select someone simply out of loyalty.
Taking the steps now to execute a will and medical and legal powers of attorney can bring peace of mind to everyone involved.