As elected officials and the general public debate over healthcare reform, a recent study took an honest look at the current state of advance directives in the United States.
These directives are legal documents, such as a living will, that enable a person to explain his wishes for end-of-life care. Family, friends or a legal representative use those documents as a guide in case that person becomes too ill to vocalize or make his own decisions.
The study comes out of the University of California, San Francisco, and involved all 50 states. Lead researcher Rebecca Sudore analyzed laws in each state, and discovered that many had restrictions that complicate the completion of advance directives.
“Advance directives are very important because they alleviate the burden of family members making these decisions,” said attorney Jennifer Guimond-Quigley.
Guimond-Quigley practices estate planning, family, probate and real estate law. She spoke to a small group at Weiss in early January, touching on everything from the positives and negatives of joint bank accounts to the differences between wills and trusts. Throughout the talk, people asked questions about their own situations, and Guimond-Quigley offered advice.
One woman said she wanted to leave money to her young grandchildren, but feared the grandchildren’s parents would spend it on themselves.
“You can’t always prevent someone from using a gift in a way you didn’t want,” Guimond-Quigley said. You can, however, set limitations, such as time. Guimond-Quigley recommended a trust in that situation, because the document would enable the woman to list exactly when she wanted her grandchildren to receive their money, i.e. upon college graduation or marriage.
Trusts also differ from wills in that they are private (wills are public record), flexible (you can name dates, while a will releases everything at once) and less vulnerable (families can’t fight them as easily as wills). They also avoid probate, the legal process of verifying a will.
Wills, however, are often less expensive upfront, and creditors only have six months to come forward for collections. A trust leaves a two-year window for creditors.
Guimond-Quigley also discussed long-term care options. “Always have a game plan in pocket,” she said, adding that there are basically three ways to pay for care: insurance, outright (which costs approximately $60,000 a year in Illinois) or through Medicaid and other governmental, needs-based programs.
With all decisions made, Guimond-Quigley said that people need to keep their papers together, make a list of their assets and write a letter explaining their choices. “This puts you into the process, shows the softer side,” she said. “It’s not just legal jargon. This is usually the thing your family will pay attention to.”
Though laws in Illinois may complicate the completion of advance directives, make sure you’re asking the right questions of your doctors and legal experts. Begin thinking about—and discussing—your future. In the end, Guimond-Quigley said, it’s about what you want. “Do you really want someone else to make these decisions at such a highly emotional time?”