When a health crisis hits, families often scramble to find and locate estate planning documents and other legal documents. At times, loved ones learn that the documents are not consistent with the plans they believed were in place. On occasion, loved ones learn that the copies they possessed were superseded by different, newer documents. In some instances, loved ones cannot locate any documents. So, in this age of coronavirus, when family and friends worry about loved ones and individuals who may be vulnerable to COVID-19, here is the Who, What, When, Where, and Why for estate planning documents in a health crisis.

  • WHO: Find out who has been appointed to make health decisions or handle a person’s assets. These are the people who have the legal authority to act on a person’s behalf whether you are working with insurance companies, financial institutions, or medical providers. Sometimes the people appointed to these roles in a Durable Power of Attorney or a Health Care Power of Attorney are not the same people who handle a person’s assets in an estate or trust administration. Bottom line: Know who has the legal authority to make decisions.
  • WHAT: Find out what the documents actually mean. Not all legal documents are created the same. Some legal documents can be complex and allow for extensive asset protection. Other legal documents serve as a simpler means-to-an-end. Bottom line: Know what the documents mean because they likely spell out the plan.
  • WHEN: The documents will usually specify when to implement certain parts of the plan. Are there restrictions in place for who can act or when a person can act? Bottom line: Know when the plan is effective.
  • WHERE: Try to locate the documents before urgency hits. In some circumstances, you may need the original documents; in other circumstances, a copy of the original will suffice. If documents are locked in a safe or a safe deposit box, does someone have access the documents? Bottom line: there is no plan without locating these documents.
  • WHY: Estate planning attorneys often work with families in times of personal health or financial crises. Attorneys have seen DIY legal documents that were not completed or left unanswered questions or blanks within a document. Attorneys have seen legal documents that are not valid due to problems with witnesses, signatures, or notaries. Attorneys have seen how a simple mistake in the documents can cost a person’s estate significant legal expenses to resolve a problem that could have been avoided. Bottom line: A time of crisis is not the moment to learn that your legal documents were inadequate to meet your goals.

During the time of self-distancing or quarantine, take a moment to locate your estate planning documents and let your loved ones know where they can find those documents in an emergency. If your estate planning documents are older or from another state, you may benefit from a meeting with an attorney to review whether your needs or goals are still achieved with your existing plan.