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Four Documents to Empower Your Life and Death

In our complicated world, we plow through a lot of paperwork. From taxes, to buying or selling a home, to keeping finances in good order, there are lots of documents to make sure we are legally and fiscally compliant. Your estate plan contains four documents which rank as some of the most important paperwork you can construct, because they have the power to direct your decisions regarding your legal affairs, your health care decisions, and your loved ones’ futures. These essential estate planning documents are:

  1. Your Will. A will is critical for your hard-earned assets to be directed to those people or charities which are important to you, and not to those whom statutes mandate should be important to you. If you die without a valid will in place, your assets will be divided up according to intestacy statutes, in ways that may very well not be what you would want. Through your will, you get to choose where your money and property are bequeathed, whether through a revocable living trust (see below) or to people or charities of your choice. Another very important reason for a will for those with minor children is to name a guardian for them. Anyone with minor children should absolutely create a valid will for the peace of mind of knowing that they have chosen who will raise their children if they should pass, rather than relying on a judge or other third party to make that decision.
  2. Your Revocable Living Trust. While a will is foundational to avoid dying intestate, your revocable living trust is essential in order to avoid a probate proceeding upon your death. Probate in California is lengthy, expensive and public. A revocable living trust, if properly funded with your assets, avoids probate and distributes your assets as you have directed in your trust. You maintain control over your gifting even after you are gone. You are also able to provide protection to those you love. For example, a trust can help your special needs child maintain public benefits, it can ensure that your children are protected from creditors, including ex-spouses, and it can also safeguard them from their own poor decisions.
  3. Your Durable Power of Attorney. If you get in an accident and become incapacitated, who will make legal decisions for you? Who will cash checks, make insurance claims in your behalf, file a lawsuit, or run your business if need be? The answer is that person who holds your durable power of attorney, and who can therefore act as your agent to manage your affairs. A trusted agent can keep your life moving forward during those times when you cannot do it for yourself. Without a valid durable power of attorney in place, there may be delays and disruptions to your most important and pressing concerns while the proper authority is obtained to take control of your affairs.
  4. Your Advance Healthcare Directive. In this document you will choose an agent to carry out your wishes regarding your healthcare when you are not able to voice those wishes yourself. In your advance healthcare directive you will choose—well in advance of any health crisis–whether you would want your life prolonged through artificial means, your priorities regarding pain relief and whether or not you want to be an organ donor. Your agent and your doctors will be able to follow your desires when you have lost the capacity to direct your own care.

These four documents can be created by a competent estate planning attorney. We feel strongly that no one should be without a valid will, revocable living trust, durable power of attorney and advance healthcare directive, and we urge you to create these documents to protect your assets and your loved ones.

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