There are two components to any properly drafted estate plan: planning for your assets and family when you die and planning for what happens if you are alive, but become ill, incapacitated or unable to make certain decisions. The former is what many focus on when they begin the process of planning and often treat the latter as an afterthought. During these times of uncertainty, the importance of preparing for possible illness, incapacity or even unavailability has become paramount.
One of the cruel aspects of the current pandemic is that due to the extremely contagious nature of COVID-19, people who become ill typically become isolated either at home or, in more dire situations, in a hospital. If a patient’s condition worsens, they may no longer be able to express their medical wishes to their doctors. If this happens, having a health care proxy and living will can allow a loved one or friend to inform the doctors and other medical professionals of your wishes.
A health care proxy is simply an appointment of another person to speak on your behalf regarding your medical treatment if you cannot do so yourself. Absent further instructions, the proxy will be vested with the ability to decide what forms of treatment the patient should be given and, potentially, if treatment should cease. The living will serves as a guide for the proxy to follow to determine what your wishes are should you be unable to express them. Common provisions in these documents include directions regarding artificial nutrition and hydration, the decision to shift to palliative care and when and how to cease treatment. These decisions are personal to each person and should be considered in consultation with loved ones and your attorney.
In addition to healthcare decisions, if a person becomes significantly ill, it is unlikely that they will be able to handle their financial and personal affairs. To ensure that these matters can continue to be handled, it is recommended that every person have a power of attorney naming one or more persons as their attorney-in-fact/agent. The power of attorney allows an individual to grant their agents’ some or all of an enumerated list of powers to handle their affairs. Power of attorneys can be durable (meaning they go into effect upon execution) or springing (meaning they go into effect upon a specified event occurring). While both accomplish the same goals, a durable power of attorney does not require any outside assessment to be used. For those with concerns over these powers being abused, every agent must counter-sign the document and are considered fiduciaries under New York law.
As more people become sick and are hospitalized, the need for these two essential documents will likely increase. Having them prepared while you are healthy is a valuable safeguard over your personal and financial well being should you fall ill.