When you become seriously ill and can no longer speak for yourself, who will make the important decisions for you? And when you are gone, how will your property be distributed? Nobody wants to think about these unpleasant questions, but planning in advance can reduce the stress on your loved ones when the big questions come up.
When a family member becomes seriously ill or dies, emotions run high. This is especially true when decisions have to be made, and family members disagree on how to proceed. Many people assume their family will simply “work it out”, but more often than not, this is not the case. The best way to ensure that your family stays in harmony when something happens to you is to give clear instructions on what you want.
When it comes to the distribution of property after death, most people take a “hands off” approach: “I don’t really have much, and my kids will split it up.” Unfortunately, things are not that easy. This is especially true in today’s modern world where families are blended; just because you consider someone your “child” does not mean that they have a right to any property under the law. And, many of the old practices of estate planning have unforeseen modern consequences−the old practice of deeding property to someone and leaving the deed in the drawer to avoid probate usually causes the beneficiary thousands of dollars in back property taxes. Generic wills bought at a book store often do not comply with state requirements, or if they do, do not give the proper instructions on how to have them signed properly so that they are effective. The same is true of the “do-it-yourself” will. The law is very specific, and if you do not understand the potential ambiguities that can arise from unclear provisions, you could create a bigger problem than the one you are trying to solve.
The importance of property distribution pales in comparison to the bigger questions related to the people left behind. Who will care for your children? What will happen to aging parents with dementia, or other disabled relatives who you take care of? These issues require careful thinking and planning. An experienced estate planning attorney can help you resolve these issues and create a foundation for a secure future for your loved ones. Trusts and other legal devices can ensure that their needs are met and provide assistance with college, medical treatment, and other expenses. Trusts can even be created to ensure that pets are cared for.
More important that the distribution of your property is the question of who will make decisions for you if you should become incapacitated. Under Michigan law, you can specify who will make these decisions and provide instructions that this person (called a “patient advocate”) should follow. This requires that you sign a document (often referred to as a “living will,” but more properly known as a “Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care”) specifically naming your patient advocate and granting him/her the ability to make these decisions. The unfortunate case of Teri Schiavo provides an all-too-common illustration of what happens when these important decisions are left up to family with no clear directions.
These kinds of documents must be signed while your mental capacities are sharp. Far too often, people walk into an attorney’s office and ask the attorney to help “draft a will for mom because she’s got severe Alzheimer’s.” By that point, it is too late; no attorney can ethically draft a will for someone whose mental capacities are insufficient for them to make these kinds of decisions. We put off making provisions for serious illness and death because we are uncomfortable with the idea of our own mortality. Unfortunately, you can’t wait until the last minute, largely because you never know when that last minute will be. Contact us, and we’ll help you smooth the road for your family and provide peace of mind for you.
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