Estate Planning Issues for Those with Shorter Life Spans

Sometimes people are faced with an immediate need for estate planning. This could be due to old age coupled with a diminished capacity, being chronically ill, receiving an unexpected diagnosis with a terminal illness or suffering a life-threatening accident.

If the need for estate planning is unexpected and immediate, it can lead to confusion and conflicting opinions among the loved ones involved -- or among those possibly entitled to a distribution.

In some cases, when a person is in the hospital being treated with a terminal illness, the hospital will provide the patient with an estate planning package to review and possibly sign. These packages have legal documentation in them. Although distributing these packages may make the job of the health care facilities easier, they don't necessarily have the best interests of the patients in mind. A person in a hospital bed may be asked to sign papers that should require some thought or understanding, and preferably be discussed with an estate planning attorney.


For example, a patient may be provided papers to choose a health care proxy to make decisions if the person loses consciousness. Let's say the patient lists two people that he or she wants to have make the decisions. But those two people may have conflicting opinions on what should occur. Or it's possible that hospital staff members may make suggestions with regard to resuscitation, which a sick or injured person lying in bed may not fully understand.

Further, those who are elderly without family members nearby (or without family members at all), may be visited by friends, neighbors and acquaintances who may not have the best intentions in mind. These people could conveniently arrange for a person lying in a hospital bed to execute a will, leaving all assets to these so-called friends.

The closer to death a loved one is, the more likely that issues of diminished capacity, undue influence, depression, mistakes and other issues can occur. Therefore, the best practice is to have a trusted professional to help complete the necessary forms so decisions are made properly.

The four basic estate planning documents are (the names may vary with each state):

  1. The last will and testament, which is the document outlining how the assets of the decedent's estate should be distributed.
  2. A power of attorney is used to appoint a person to make financial decisions when someone is still alive. This can help protect your assets if you become incapacitated.
  3. A living will states the wishes of the person with regard to how you want to be treated in various medical situations. For example, do you want to be given food and water intravenously or through a tube? Do you want to be placed on a ventilator? Do you want to be resuscitated?
  4. A health care proxy appoints a person to make health care decisions when someone is incapacitated.

It would behoove individuals with a short life span to review and sign these documents as soon as possible. This is because the potential of limited capacity to make decisions is more likely than if the person was completely healthy.

There are a variety of other issues that should be addressed with regard to financial and estate issues pertaining to life insurance, pensions, retirement accounts and investments.

Also, if the life expectancy is a bit longer wherein the person needs to be transferred from a hospital to a nursing home, Medicaid planning is necessary.

Speak with your estate planning advisor or attorney about these issues so you have the proper plans in place. If you don't make decisions, they will be made for you and may not be what you want.

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