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Beth Pinsker: My mom gave me these cheat sheets before she had surgery recently and they saved me tons of anxiety

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I’m celebrating National Caregivers Month this year by sitting in hospital waiting rooms while my mother recovers from some surgery. She’ll be fine, but for a few days, she had to hand over control of her life. That’s not an easy thing to do, and also not an easy thing to contemplate in advance so that you do all the necessary things to prepare for that moment. 

Most people don’t have any idea where to start, and inertia keeps them from going anywhere near the task. The people who tackle the decisions that need to be made tend to have had a bad experience picking up the pieces for somebody else who hadn’t prepared. This sends them to estate planning attorneys or financial professionals who can help with paperwork they need and the organization of their assets. 

“I think fear drives somebody into the office to get stuff done — fear of losing money or leaving hassle to children,” says Brittney Shearin, product manager at Guidr, a new platform for creating estate-planning documents. “Underlying all of those things, love is what drives them to do it. They wouldn’t have those fears if they didn’t love their family. It’s both, always.”

“ Estate planning encompasses a lot more than just wealthy people putting their assets into trusts so they avoid paying taxes. ”

Estate planning encompasses a lot more than just wealthy people putting their assets into trusts so they avoid paying taxes. In the case of a parent going into surgery, for instance, it means having the right documents in place so that family members can smoothly make emergency medical and financial decisions and, especially, to honor the person’s wishes if something goes wrong. 

None of this is actually very hard or costly, and technology keeps making the process easier. So if you knock time and money off the excuse list, are you ready to get going? 

Here’s a quick-start guide to what you need to do: 

Power of attorney

This is one of those do-now items. Everyone over the age of 18 should have some kind of power of attorney document ready to go in an emergency, naming a trusted person to take care of financial decisions. That goes for everyone from college students to elderly folks. Even married couples need power of attorney for each other. 

You can get as specific about the permissions as you want to get, and some states actually require you to have a line-item for each type of transaction, like accessing a safe-deposit box, for instance. 

You can create this document online for free from some services like RocketLawyer, but the key is to make sure that the document is properly executed. Most states will require the document to be notarized and witnessed, and some states require this of both the person and the designated agent. You can even do this online these days. A service like Guidr will have a lawyer look over the documents, for a fee starting around $79 or more if packaged with other services. 

Medical directives

In my purse at the hospital this week, I made sure to pack snacks and a stack of papers: my mom’s designation of healthcare surrogate, HIPAA authorization for release of information and her living will. All three documents were notarized and witnessed. 

We were asked about them at every step of the process, from registration to the send-off before they wheeled her into the operating room. The surrogate form and HIPAA authorization are standard boilerplate naming agents to make decisions and get information, and can easily be done online or at the hospital, but it’s better to do them beforehand so you can think through it in a relaxed fashion. 

If you’re getting a whole estate package done, make sure this is included. Andrew Crowell, vice chairman of wealth management at D.A. Davidson, an investment bank, says he’s surprised how many people don’t have this paperwork done when they make a will. A recent survey from his company shows that only a third of people have a will, but even fewer have healthcare directives. 

“Advisers need to go there with their clients. They need to be willing to ask the what-ifs, to ensure that an individual’s wishes are known,” Crowell says. 

The living will requires more thought and might be the kind of thing you balk at because it’s just too serious. You have the ability to lay out your wishes about life-prolonging procedures and organ donation in this document. This is when love comes into play. 

Crowell faced this himself when his mother was dying of Covid in the winter of 2020 and the family had to make a decision about putting her on a ventilator. She had put it in writing clearly that she didn’t want those kinds of measures. “It made that very tough end of life decision much easier,” he says. 

Further instructions

You need to write up a formal will, and you may need a trust, but another essential item you can provide to family is free and easy to complete. At the hospital, I had a cheat sheet on a single piece of paper with all my mother’s vital information. She usually keeps this tucked into her wallet next to her identification. At the top was name, address, birth date, emergency contacts and referral doctors. 

Then there was a list of previous surgeries and illness, plus current medications with their dosage and what they were for. Depending on what’s wrong with a person this could be a long list, and it’s important for medical personnel to know, especially allergies. While I know these things about my children, I didn’t know it for my mom. 

The same philosophy goes for passwords and account numbers for financial information — but you don’t have to carry that with you to the hospital, obviously. This goes beyond what goes on the power of attorney official document, to give a road map to the person who will be picking up the slack for you. If your family doesn’t have this, it could take them months of detective work to sort out on their own. 

My mom left it all in a folder under the keyboard of her computer, along with the information about her cemetery plot. She’ll shuffle it off to its proper place in a filing cabinet when she gets home. 

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