As I wrote this piece, it was New Year’s Day. Father Time was out and the Baby New Year in. With this cyclical and symbolic rebirth, echoed by various traditions throughout the world, I got to thinking (as I often do) about life, death, and disability. (I guess you could call me “death positive.”)
Cleaning out my email inbox, I came across this little nugget from Vox about different generations’ views on death. From my experience, most Baby Boomers would rather not confront their own mortality, while those “of a certain age” are often more ready.
Still, every now and again, I’ll get an inquiry from a Millenial about making a Will. AARP finds the statistics about Gen-X and Millennials without estate plans “whopping.”
I don’t think the attitudes of the “yutes” are out-of-line with maturity, practicality, and culture, but maybe we should take a closer look.
Do you really need an estate plan in your 20s? What would it look like?
First, while most people think of a Last Will & Testament as the key component of an estate plan, these days it’s often the least important. The only place a will works is in probate, and most estate plans seek to avoid probate for a variety of reasons: time, expense, and hassle being prime among them. In addition, younger people tend not to need a complicated estate plan because the law generally presumes what most people would guess: that a deceased twenty-something’s belongings would just go to his or her parents.
What you really need
To avoid burying the lead, let me repeat something I’ve often said to clients: incapacity is a fate worse than death. Whether incapacity is due to being overseas on a Fulbright or in an unresponsive wakeful state, it can make getting things done — paying bills, signing or getting out of a lease, or deciding on a course of medical treatment — a real hassle that two simple and cheap documents can avoid.
Without a power of attorney for financial and other matters, as well as an advance directive for healthcare, actions as ordinary as opening the mail or as extraordinary as deciding when to “pull the plug” require a guardianship. That is, a relative, partner, or even the hospital has to petition the probate court to appoint someone to make those decisions for the person in need. This causes delay, costs money, and puts a burden on loved ones.
Power of Attorney
The general power of attorney allows someone to do anything the agent can do, apart from medical decisions. This includes checking mail, making and breaking contracts, suing, paying bills, cashing checks, and the like. As such, it’s like a “power to steal,” but one hopes that you’ve selected an attorney-in-fact (also known as an “agent”) that you can trust with your life.
Vermont does not have a statutory form for the general power of attorney, though you can find a free version at VT Law Help. This version isn’t without its flaws, but if you’re strapped for cash, it’s better than nothing.
Advance Directive for Healthcare
An agent under the advance directive for healthcare can make as many — or few — decisions as you wish, from medical and end-of-life treatment to funeral, burial/cremation, and anatomical gifts. You may have heard of “living wills” or “durable healthcare powers of attorney,” which the advance directives replaced while expanding what could be included.
Commonly used, free advance directive for healthcare forms are available from Vermont Ethics Network. Here again, the forms aren’t perfect but will get the job done.
How do I fill these out?
The documents are fairly straightforward. Be sure to attend to the execution requirements — that is, who can and can’t be a witness or notary, and how many witnesses you need.
For both documents, you should make sure to select a few options:
First, make it immediately effective. No-one wants to try to figure out language like “when I’m incapacitated” or “when I can’t make my own decisions” when it’s time to make critical decisions. Besides, if you don’t trust your designated agent not to act irresponsibly while you have full capacity, why would you trust them to act responsibly when you don’t?
Second, and this is more for the advance directive, if you have the option to designate people other than your agent to make decisions — don’t. You’re choosing someone to make critical decisions and take critical actions on your behalf. Let them do their job if the time comes.
Finally, with regards to the advance directive, be sure that your choices about care during incapacity or end-of-life do not conflict. If you have questions about this, speak with your doctor or an elder law attorney.
Why have a Last Will and Testament?
Rather than a will, I often recommend a number of “will substitutes.” The most useful of these is a beneficiary designation, even for folks whose plan includes a trust or special form of deed to real property.
If you have a job, you likely have a bank account. Check with your bank or credit union about making a beneficiary designation (often called “pay on death”) on each account. This leaves you in complete control of your money but makes the funds available without probate. The same goes with retirement, investment accounts, and individual securities, which may allow beneficiary or “transfer-on-death” designations.
In Vermont, you can also make a beneficiary designation for an automobile, from one individual to one individual, by filling out a form at the DMV.
So, with these will substitutes and others (such as term life insurance), why have a will? The primary reason would be if you have children. The will offers a place to nominate guardians in case both parents perish or if there is only one legal parent.
The X-ennial Estate Plan
If you’re under 50 or so, with a power of attorney, advance directive, and beneficiary designations, as well as a will if you have children, you can be confident that your affairs are in order. Just make sure to do regular updates to make sure you’re up to date!