Two of the most common misconceptions about estate planning are that you don’t have to worry about it unless you are an older adult – or you are wealthy. However, some experts urge young people to think about it as a rite of passage – and start planning for unanticipated events at age 18. In reality, it is important for all adults in Maryland and the District of Columbia to have a basic estate plan that includes a will, power of attorney and advance medical directive. Keep reading to learn why.
Defining estate plans and estate planning
To begin with, it is important to understand the legal definitions of an estate plan and estate planning. Traditionally, estate planning is defined as the mechanism that allows someone to specify how their wealth and possessions should be distributed after they die. Today the term is also used to describe the means by which someone can:
- Name someone to act on their behalf if injury or illness renders them incapable of expressing their wishes; and
- Specify their wishes regarding medical treatment if they are seriously hurt or critically ill and can no longer express themselves.
An estate plan is essentially a set of legal documents containing the written instructions reflecting your wishes as detailed above. The type of documents included will depend on your particular circumstances, preferences, and provisions under applicable laws.
Making a will in Maryland and Washington D.C.
A Will, or last will and testament, is the document that usually comes to mind when someone thinks about making an estate plan. This is a legal document that ensures your family is cared for in accordance with your wishes after you die. Maryland law allows you to do the following when you create a will:
- Specify how your assets should be allocated (to family, charities etc.)
- Name someone to look after your children (until any such children become adults)
- Name the person in charge of any assets left to your children (until any such children reach adulthood)
- Name someone (called an executor) who is in charge of making sure the instructions in your will are carried out
To be effective, a will must be signed by you and by witnesses in accordance with applicable law. It can also be changed or withdrawn at any time.
If you don’t have a valid will in place when you die in Maryland, any money or property you had is simply allocated according to applicable state law.
On its website, the District’s Department of Aging and Community Living also stresses the importance of making a will for all of the reasons previously noted. But because preparing a will can be tricky, the agency also encourages D.C. residents to seek legal advice and guidance from estate planning attorneys. The agency also recommends retaining a qualified attorney to draft your will, since they are specifically authorized to write legal documents in the District.
What is a power of attorney?
In addition to your last will and testament, a basic estate plan should include a power of attorney. The power of attorney is a legal tool that allows you to choose someone (often called an agent) to act for you if you can no longer make your wishes known.
The agent’s ability to act on your behalf can be extremely limited or very broad, depending on your situation, preferences and stipulations in relevant laws. The laws for your area also determine whether the power of attorney must be renewed to remain in effect after a specified period ends, or if you can have a “durable power of attorney.” After it is signed, the latter is effective until you die or cancel it.
The advance medical directive
An advance medical directive is another key component of a basic estate plan. Put in the simplest terms, this directive lets you select someone (called an agent, advocate or surrogate) to make decisions about your healthcare if you are unable to do so. It is also known as a medical directive, a healthcare power of attorney, a designation of healthcare surrogate or a durable power of attorney for healthcare.
People often confuse this type of directive with a living will. While they can both be included in estate plans, there is one key difference. Unlike an advance medical directive, a living will does not allow someone else to make healthcare decisions for you. Instead, it only specifies your wishes regarding medical treatment.
Because state laws govern the provisions in an advance medical directive, it is always best to talk to a qualified lawyer prior to including one in your estate plan.
If you live in Maryland or Washington D.C., we are happy to help you craft a basic estate plan, or review an existing plan. Contact the Colbert Law Firm to schedule a consultation today at www.colbertlawcenter.com or call us at 301.576.6200.