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Whitney Hughes, Director of the Allegheny County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service, frequently appears on the “Legal Briefs” segment of Pittsburgh Today Live on KDKA-TV. Following is a transcript from a KDKA appearance.

How Prepared are you - Really?

What we don’t often talk about are the actual practical considerations of what will happen during the end stages of your life or the loved ones around you.

Below are some reminders of the importance of legal documents but some common sense and day-to-day considerations as well.

Must-Haves

Will

A will is a legal document that details how your property will be distributed in the event of your death. It can also state who will care for your minor children as well. Anyone who owns a home, has money in the bank or has children should have a will. Once you've passed away there is nothing you can do to make sure your wishes are adhered to. It's essential to have a written will to make sure these plans are carried out. Many people are under the mistaken assumption that if a husband dies without a will, his wife will receive the entire estate. That is not true. In this situation, under most intestacy statutes if there are no children, the wife would receive 1/2 to 1/3 of the estate and the remainder would go to the husband's parents. If there are children, the wife would take 1/2 to 1/3 and the children would get the rest - regardless of their age. This can be a problem if the children are young because they usually aren't prepared to receive a large sum of money and it is spent quickly.

Living Will

A living will is a document in which you specifically state your wishes with respect to receiving life saving or life sustaining treatment. These can be very specific with respect to the treatment you are accepting or refusing - for example breathing assistance or feeding tubes. Keep in mind that even if you have a living will it is essential that the person you appoint as your power of attorney have a copy of your living will.

Power of Attorney

A Power of Attorney is a legal document in which you give another person the ability to make certain decisions for you in the event you are not able to do so. There are different types of Powers of Attorney - healthcare, financial and general. You can have just one or all three.

I NEVER thought of that

List Your Assets

All of them. List each bank account, the approximate amounts in them and where the banks are located. Detail the life insurance policies and who the beneficiaries are (making sure you’ve updated the beneficiaries in the event of life changes – births, deaths, marriages, divorces, etc). List stock holdings, CDs, bonds and safe deposit boxes as well as the keys for them.  If you do not have an accurate list of all the assets to someone’s name it makes administration of their estate or financial planning for those left behind an absolute nightmare.

Keep All Important Paperwork Together

It’s not enough to just make a list of what you have, but keep things all together in a safe place. If you bought stock in 1993 at the same time you bought tires for your car, the paperwork for both should not be stored together. Use common sense and be as organized as possible. You know what is important – treat it that way.

Let a Loved One In On Where You've "Stashed" Things

Many people are in the habit of keeping cash around the house in case of emergencies. It’s a good idea to have some cash on hand – but some people don’t realize exactly how much they have stashed away, nor do they tell someone where they have it hidden. We’ve heard stories of people who hide several thousands of dollars within their homes – under mattresses, behind carpeting or in drawers somewhere. If you are doing this, keep records of how much you have, and let at least one person you trust (ideally the executor of your estate) know where the hiding places are. 

If a Loved One Assumes They Will Be Receiving Some Benefit After You Pass, and You Have DRASTICALLY Changed Your Estate Plan - Let Them Know

If you have the option of receiving a spousal benefit for a pension after your death and you do NOT take this benefit – discuss this with your spouse and let them know. If there is a life insurance policy that does NOT list a spouse or a child as a beneficiary, let them know that as well. While you do not have to divulge your entire estate plan, or all of the intended beneficiaries, it will avoid a great deal of surprise down the road if you tell your husband or children that you intend to leave the life insurance proceeds to your sister, rather than having them assume they will be able to use it for funeral expenses or to put toward future care of a family member.

Be Realistic About Those You're Leaving Behind

As couples age, it may become evident that one or the other, or possibly both will have ongoing health issues and need continuing care. Not only does this underscore the importance of having a will, living will and Power of Attorney, but it also forces you to really consider what will happen to your loved ones after you’re gone. If a husband is the primary caretaker for his wife who has dementia, realize that she will not be able to handle many of the affairs needed when he passes away. If a sister is caring for her severely disabled brother and she passes away – who is left to care for him? If a placement in an assisted living facility or long term care facility is in the future, consider it sooner, rather than later. Many places have waiting lists of a couple months to over a year. Better to be realistic about your loved one’s needs now and take proactive steps, rather than leave both them and your remaining family members left hanging with no plan for their care.

Talk to People Who Will Be There to Help

Discuss all of these things with the loved ones or family members who will be tying up all of these loose ends after you pass. Discuss your assets and your financial situation with a financial advisor to make sure that you have things as organized as possible and in the most advantageous places. Finally, talk to an attorney who will be able to tell you what all of your options are, and how to make the transitions during this difficult time go as smoothly as possible.

The Allegheny County Bar Association Lawyer Referral Service can help you find an attorney equipped to handle this specific type of case. To speak with an attorney or for more information, call 412-261-5555 or click here.