Back to Basics: Estate Planning 101, Part III

A power of attorney, including a heath care power of attorney, are crucial estate planning documents. This is especially important if you have Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or are suffering from another chronic and debilitating illness. Individuals who are widowed or alone should carefully consider who they can trust to manage their financial and medical affairs when they lose the ability to make such decisions themselves.


  •     Power of Attorney: A power of attorney is a legal document you can use to appoint someone to make decisions on your behalf. The person you designate is called an “attorney-in-fact.” The appointment can be effective immediately or can become effective only if you are unable to make decisions on your own.

o   New York State has a short-form and a long-form Power of Attorney form.


  •     Health Care Power of Attorney: A health care power of attorney is a legal form that allows an individual to empower another with decisions regarding his or her healthcare and medical treatment. A healthcare power of attorney becomes active when a person is unable to make decisions or consciously communicate intentions regarding treatments.


What kinds of decisions can my health care power of attorney agent make:

  •     Talk with physicians and other health care providers about your condition.
  •     See medical records and approve who else can see them.
  •     Give permission for medical tests, medicines, surgery, or other treatments.
  •     Choose where you receive care and which physicians and others provide it.
  •     Decide to accept, withdraw, or decline treatments designed to keep you alive if you are near death or not likely to recover. You may choose to include guidelines and/or restrictions to your agent’s authority.
  •     Agree or decline to donate your organs or your whole body if you have not already made this decision yourself. This could include donation for transplant, research, and/or education. You should let your agent know whether you are registered as a donor, or whether you have agreed to donate your whole body for medical research and/or education.
  •     Decide what to do with your remains after you have died, if you have not already made plans.
  •     Talk with your other loved ones to help come to a decision (but your designated agent will have the final say over your other loved ones).


Your agent is not automatically responsible for your health care expenses and should act within your financial means. Power of attorney documents, whether financial or for medical decision purposes, have no effect after death. The last will and testament and any trust documents control financial decision making after you die.


What you need to know about your spouse or partner before they die:

  •     How much life insurance is there? What are the company names and policy numbers?
  •     Who are the beneficiaries?
  •     Where are the bank, brokerage and retirement accounts?
  •     Is there a safety deposit box – where is the key?
  •     What are the addresses, phone numbers for next of kin?
  •     Who is the lawyer?  Where is the will or trust?
  •     What are the passwords to all online accounts, including email, social media, and financial websites?


Estate planning is important because it saves your heirs and beneficiaries trouble, money, and heartache. Other benefits include ensuring that your money and other assets are inherited by the people you want, limiting tax liability, and preserving estate assets.


Read about other parts of an estate plan, such as last will and testament and trusts in Parts I and II of this series on Estate Planning Basics.

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