A version of this article originally appeared in Millennial Magazine.
Having just recently tied the knot myself last September, I know what it is like to take the plunge. I dated my wife for ten years prior to matrimony so, for us, settling down has been somewhat of a smooth transition. Oddly enough, however, since our big day, I’ve noticed a substantial increase in my wife’s concern for my general safety, especially when dashing across the bustling streets of Manhattan, where we live. Clearly, she and I have a different understanding of what the flashing red hand on the other side of the crosswalk means.
While I find her concern more endearing than anything else, the financial advisor in me is reminded of an extremely important set of legal documents that newlyweds should have, should the unthinkable happen. I call it the “Estate Planning Starter Kit”, and it consists of the following critical components: a last will and testament, a financial durable power of attorney, a health care proxy and a living will.
Last Will and Testament
The most widely talked about estate planning document is the last will and testament, or will for short. This document spells out who receives your possessions and assets when you die. However, it does more than explain where your “stuff” should go. It also states other important information such as who you want to place in charge of administering your estate and who you want the guardian(s) of any minor children to be, should you have any. It is important to note that without this document, your state government will be the one handling your affairs in accordance with state law, which is usually a less than ideal situation. Lastly, when preparing your wills, it is important to also review the titling of your assets, as well as the beneficiary designations you have made on any life insurance policies and retirement accounts. Be aware that the provisions of the will only govern those assets that remain after transfers have been made to designated beneficiaries or co-owners by title or state community property laws.
Durable Power of Attorney
In addition to a will, your starter kit should have a durable power of attorney, which is responsible for assigning an individual, known as the “attorney in fact”, who can make financial decisions for you, should you be incapacitated. Therefore, should bills need paying, investments need managing or assets need to be sold, this document will allow the attorney in fact to act on your behalf. Given the large amount of power and responsibility these powers can place on a person, it is usually a good idea to choose someone you explicitly trust.
Health Care Proxy
The next component in your kit is a heath care proxy. Much like a durable power of attorney, this document permits a specified person, an agent, to make medical decisions on your behalf, allowing them the ability to authorize medical procedures and treatments. Once again, choosing a trustworthy agent is critical. It may even make sense to have a conversation with the agent so that they clearly understand what your wishes are, Heaven forbid these circumstances arise.
The final piece to your starter kit is a living will. This document outlines your wishes if you not only are incapacitated, but also if death is imminent or if you are in a persistent vegetative state. Remember Terri Schiavo? That was a terrible situation, yet it was completely avoidable.
Due to their very nature, these areas of estate planning can be as serious as they are emotional. Simply discussing these matters with my clients has evoked everything from sadness and fear to panic and urgency. However, it is important to recognize that, should the worst arise, the emotional pay is typically far worse than spending a few hours and dollars with a reputable estate planning attorney.
As one last recommendation, I suggest staying away from online legal service Web sites. While I am all for technology making our lives easier, when it comes to matters as serious as these, it is best to work one-on-one with a trusted, local legal professional. So, get it done, fellow newlyweds: the sooner, the better.