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Why you should have an estate plan in Pennsylvania (even if you think you don’t need one)

I have long said that every adult in Pennsylvania needs an estate plan.  When lawyers talk about “estate planning,” most people think of just writing a simple Will and nothing else.  Because of that, many people understandably, but incorrectly believe that having one is unnecessary.  Reasons include “not having any assets,” “having too much debt” or “I’m young and healthy and don’t need to think about this right now.” 

Creating an estate plan with an attorney involves more than just writing up a Will.  In our practice, we discuss a Will, Durable (financial) Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney (“Living Will”), and potentially other related documents depending on your situation.  The purpose of an estate plan is to tell others what you want to see happen when you are unable to speak for yourself either due to disability or death.  If you do not have a Will, there is already a default estate plan in place:  Pennsylvania sets out specific distributions as to “who gets what” if you pass away.  If you want to leave a donation to a charity, or you want to provide for a sibling or a beloved niece or nephew, you need to have a Will because those individuals may not be entitled to anything under Pennsylvania’s default law. 

But perhaps even more than a Will, it is critical that you have a designated financial and healthcare agent via a Power of Attorney.  In any given year, it is far more likely that you will become temporarily disabled than pass away and designating someone to act on your behalf ensures that your financial needs are met and that your wishes concerning healthcare decisions will be met.  Selecting someone to handle your finances ensures that your bills will be paid, and your financial accounts will be managed by someone you trust to be responsible.  Selecting a healthcare agent means that if you are unable to make medical decisions for yourself, that your desires about treatment and even end of life care will be respected. 

In the absence of speaking with and appointing someone to act on your behalf, Pennsylvania sets aside specific guidelines about who will make those decisions for you.  That default person may or may not respect your wishes or may not even know what your wishes are.  It may be unlikely to happen, but every year family members unwittingly authorize, withhold, and withdraw medical treatment against someone’s wishes simply because those wishes were never discussed. 

Without a financial power of attorney, your family members may be forced to resort to court intervention to enable them to access your accounts and pay bills if you are unable to do so.  This is often a lengthy process and how long that process takes depends just as much on the court docket as it does on the skill of a lawyer.  In that time, bills may remain unpaid, and you could experience severe financial consequences.  Designating a responsible family member or friend to immediately handle these matters for you will preserve your assets and protect your credit. 

Having a well-crafted estate plan gives you a voice during times when you cannot speak for yourself.  It gives your family security and knowledge about what you want to happen so they do not have to guess the right decision during such a difficult time.  An estate plan can always be changed as your needs and priorities change, and there is no need to wait until the “perfect” moment to create one. 

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