August 19, 2014

Current Documents - It Does a Family Good

Credit: Ambro
Have you ever looked in the fridge and been really glad that you had a nice gallon of milk just sitting there? Not to get too crazy, but a gallon of milk kind of proudly stands out in a refrigerator with its crisp labelling, unusual shape, and pristine coloring. There’s just something about knowing that it’s there that can put a smile on your face. If you want cereal, it’s there, if you need to bake something, it’s there, and if you need something to wash down more Oreos than you would care to admit, it’s there.

There’s another scenario, though, and it’s one of my least favorite. Have you ever opened a gallon of milk and given it that customary sniff, just to make sure everything is as it should be, and had your nostrils greeted with the deplorable, putrid, sour smell of rot? Have you ever gone to the trouble of reaching up in the cabinets to retrieve your favorite glass and gone ahead and poured a glass of milk (bypassing the customary sniff test) only to find the inside of your mouth wrenching after that first gulp of spoiled milk? I know I have damaged my nostrils and angered my taste buds doing just that on more than one occasion, and it’s no good. You need milk, and unless you’re a two-gallon kind of family, you’re usually just out of luck. All you can do is pour the expired product down the drain, put the lid back on the jug so it doesn’t stink up your garbage, and head to the trash can.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen some estate planning and health care documents that resemble spoiled milk. They were originally done oh so well. They were crisp documents done by prestigious lawyers, they were printed on the obnoxious, extra-large-sized legal paper, and they were kept in a nice little binder in the family’s safety deposit box or the bottom of a dresser drawer. The documents were like a good gallon of milk – they were there if you needed them. However, time passes. Family relationships and dynamics change. Agents, guardians, and executors pass away themselves or lose their desire or capability to assist you. Minor children become adults and have children themselves. Financial institutions and governments change the wording required for everything to work as it was so intended. Any or all of these events can take a perfectly good set of estate planning or health care documents and spoil them. This will likely go unnoticed (just like a capped gallon of expired milk in a fridge), but when someone gets hurt or passes away and the documents are needed (just like a glass of milk to wash down a peanut butter sandwich), the documents can really stink and show just how "expired" they really are.

Wills, power of attorneys, health care directives, and beneficiary designations are a lot more important than a dairy product. When someone gets sick or passes away they can’t just pour their old documents down the drain and get fresh ones. Their family could be legally required to drink the cup that is put before them based on their loved one's most recent estate planning and health care documents no matter how old they are, even if the family knows it is not what the deceased or incapacitated wanted or intended. I’m not trying to make anyone spend a bunch of money on attorney fees, but if you pull your documents and see that they have cobwebs on them, you may want to consider getting them updated. If you’ve recently had children or become a grandparent, if a family dynamic has seriously changed, if a key person in your documents such as a primary or contingent agent or beneficiary is no longer with us, or if your documents are more than about five years old, it may be about time to get your documents updated.

If you don’t have any documents at all, consider this your proverbial kick in the you-know-what. Living without proper documents in place is a lot crazier than not having milk in your refrigerator!
It wasn’t something I particularly enjoyed, but my family and I have our estate planning and health care affairs in order, and that gives my wife and me a sense of comfort and confidence. I can focus on other things, such as running to the store for a gallon of milk and maybe, just maybe, a pack of Oreos.


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