I wish that estate planning were called something else. Estate planning implies that it is about what happens to your property when you die. That is, of course, part of what estate planning attorneys do for clients. But a lot of what estate planning attorneys do is designed to prepare clients for other events, other than death, that happen in their life.
Perhaps personal legal planning is a better term for what I and attorneys like me do for people.
An estate planning attorney will typically help a client prepare a plan for the distribution of their property when they die, but the attorney will also help the client put together plans for medical emergiencies, long term health crises, short term medical issues, and the potential needs that come with aging. This post discusses three common documents an estate planning attorney will help clients create: the Medical Power of Attorney, the Directive to Physicians, and the HIPAA Release. The names of the documents and the following discussion is based on Texas law, but all states have similar documents.
MEDICAL POWER OF ATTORNEY
The Medical POA is used when a person is not conscious or not competent to make medical decisions for themselves due to medical or physical problems. The document allows an individual to designate in advance the person (and backups) who medical personnel are authorized to go to for decisions about medical treatment and care. It is only used with the individual cannot make their own decisions.
Married persons usually designate their spouse, followed a parent or a grown child, but it can be any person in any order. The document is especially useful for persons who have longtime partners but are not married, and for persons who have a chaotic family where no clear representative would emerge.
DIRECTIVE TO PHYSICIANS
In Texas, this is the official name of what is commonly known as a living will. This document allows a person to state their own wishes about end of life care in the event they have a terminal condition and are unable to state their own wishes as to care and treatment. It overrides any person designated in a Medical Power of Attorney, but only for end of life decisions. Basically, the document lets you state whether you wish to continue treatment or to receive comfort care only.
Very strong federal privacy laws protect a person's medical information from being released without the person's consent. This document allows a person to give consent to anyone holding protected health information to the person or persons named in the release. This document only gives access to information, it does not allow the named individuals to make any decisions. In the event of a serious medical situation, it will allow doctors to talk to the people you name about your condition. It will also allow your helath insurance company to talk to the named persons about your coverage and claims matters. In the event you have a serious medical situation, there may be a friend or family member who would be willing to help with insurance issues and general hospital matters, and naming them in this release will allow them to be able to help.
These three documents will make a difficult situation much less stressful to deal with than if they have not been completed. It's a life planning matter, a personal legal planning matter, that you will benefit from and your family and loved ones will be grateful that you completed.