Legal documents to have in times of emergency

Planning that helps deal with the unexpected.

The swift rise of the coronavirus has seen an equally swift rise in emergency care, and some families are unprepared for what that care might involve. In these days of uncertainty, local attorney Jeremy Liem said that now is a good time to consider legal planning to avoid unexpected complications.

Liem, a partner at Holllister’s Pipal Spurzem & Liem LLP, suggests some basic documents that can quickly become essential.

“Everybody has the potential, whether in a car crash or hospitalization, to require someone to care for them,” Liem said. “And there are some primary documents you need to have ready.”

Known as an advanced health care directive, this is a document people might be aware of through visits to the doctor.

“This enables someone, a family member or trusted friend, to make medical decisions if and when someone is unable to make them for themselves,” Liem said. “Everyone needs one regardless of their health or financial situation.”

The advanced health care directive becomes important in the hospital if a patient is unable to respond directly to questions about treatment or make care decisions on their own, such as procedures that might prolong life without considering quality of life. For seniors who may not understand the complexity of treatment options, it allows them to defer to someone they trust to make these decisions for them.

Another essential document is the durable power of attorney. “This allows someone to make financial decisions for someone else,” Liem said, “and they become what is known as your ‘attorney in fact.’’’

He described a case where an individual might be incapacitated and need someone to be able to conduct transactions for them.

“If you were in quarantine in a hospital right now, it would allow someone to go to your bank and, for example, make a car payment for you,” he said.

In the case of someone who may have had a disabling illness requiring extended care, or someone who has become legally incompetent because of dementia, granting power of attorney allows their financial needs to be taken care of for as long as it’s needed.

While these matters might receive little attention in times of good health, Leim emphasized that things can change rapidly.

“The example I use frequently is that of a car crash,” he said. “Somebody comes out of nowhere and suddenly you are in a coma.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is another example.

“With this virus, you can go from zero symptoms to being on a respirator in a matter of days. And when you are dealing with these medical health issues, getting together your legal documents is really not at the forefront of your mind. It is important for people to take the time to do these documents while they are in good health, and good mental health.”

Proper legal documents are also important in case of death. To avoid complications with bank accounts, personal possessions and property, a living trust and a will can be drafted.

“There are a few ways people handle estate planning,” Liem said. “One option, which most people use, is to do nothing. If you do nothing and you have assets over $150,000, you’re going to have to go through probate.” 

Probate is the process of legally resolving an estate, paying debts and dividing things among heirs. It can be time-consuming and expensive.

“You have to open up a court case, you have to hire an attorney and it takes a minimum of four months,” Liem said.

Though a will allows an individual to designate who receives assets, Liem said a court visit is still necessary if a living trust has not been drafted.

A living trust is worth the effort, according to Liem. It will list all assets and establish the ownership of any assets for the estate. It allows the heirs to skip the probate process in most cases and save considerable time and money,

“In 99% of the cases, you can avoid the court. You could resolve an estate in a day, as quickly as you could do the paperwork.”

While the advanced healthcare directive and durable power of attorney can both be relatively simple documents to prepare, a living trust takes more planning and a lawyer should be consulted.

“I see a lot of people doing what I call ‘kitchen table estate planning’ where they sit around at dinner and say ‘here is what I’m going to do,’” Leim said, adding that this kind of approach can result in legal problems and unexpected taxes down the line.

“You want to consult with a lawyer,” he said, “to be sure that the documents that are prepared are accomplishing what you think they are accomplishing.”

After completing the documents, Leim suggests individuals make copies and carry them in the car, on vacation, even having a set at the workplace if possible.

“Unless there is confidential information in there you don’t want family or friends aware of, give them copies as well,” he said.

One satisfied customer is an employee of the law firm, paralegal Ashley Hain.

“I recently started working here and had to respond to the messages asking ‘what do I do? Can you help? Is this something I need?’” she said. “I knew about wills and as I learned more about these things, I realized how important they are for protecting your house, your assets, and your children.”

The pandemic has brought a flood of requests from people who now recognize the need for these important documents.

“It’s a no-brainer, once you understand them,” Hain said. “They help you be ready for any emergency that comes up and you will be glad you have them.”


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Robert Eliason

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