To Tell or Not to Tell: Shedding Some Light on Your Estate Plan

I recently had a client (I’ll call James) share his story with me.

James and his family watched his father become very ill. At a certain point, the doctors told his family they had to make a decision about whether to leave dad on life support or choose to end life-sustaining measures. James and his family spent hours agonizing over the decision. They questioned whether anyone had this discussion with dad, and what choice would dad make if he was able. Ultimately, the family made the difficult choice to end life support. His father passed away soon after.

About a week after the funeral, James discovered that his father had created an estate plan. That plan included both a Health Care Power of Attorney (a document naming someone to make healthcare decisions for him) and a Living Will (a document where one chooses whether to be kept on life-support in certain circumstances. )

Horrified, James quickly read the documents to find out whether they chose what dad would have wanted. He shared with me how frustrated and angry he was at his dad. Had they only know these documents existed, James and his family would have been saved from making this gut wrenching   and heartbreaking decision without his dad’s guidance.

Here is another true story. Track and Field Olympian Florence “FloJo” Griffith Joyner responsibly created her estate plan. Unfortunately, FloJo failed to tell anyone where she kept the original documents. After her sudden death, the originals were never found. This caused costly delay in the administration of her estate that ended up taking several years to resolve.

florence griffith joyner
florence griffith joyner (Photo credit: derek*b)

As an estate planning attorney, I sadly hear this same story time and time again.

The first task I give my clients after completing their estate plan is “Tell your loved ones!” Telling your family and successor agents where you keep your originals and how to access them in time of emergency is imperative to ensure your plan works.   This is no time to keep secrets. These documents need to see the light of day to work properly.

Many people create an estate plan with the number one goal of protecting their family. If you have already taken the important step to create your estate plan, here are a few simple next steps to make sure your family truly is protected.

  1. Keep your original documents in a safe place such as a safe deposit box or fire proof box.
  2. Keep a set of copies either electronically or on paper under a different roof than where you keep the originals.
  3. Tell your family and/or successor agents that you have created a plan, where you keep the originals, and how to access the originals. (For example: the key to the fire box is in the tin box in the “junk” drawer.)
  4. Consider giving a copy of your HealthCare Power of Attorney, Mental HealthCare Power of Attorney, HIPAA Release Form, and Living Will to your successor agent. This is the person who will make medical decisions for you in an emergency and they may not have time to get the originals.
  5. Carry an emergency card in your wallet or purse listing who to contact in case of emergency. Include all of your successor healthcare agents and their contact phone numbers. If you have pets, consider adding who to call to care for your pets and make sure those individuals have a key or access to your home.

If you have an estate plan in place, you don’t want it to be your best kept secret. Make sure your documents see the light of day!

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