So, you’ve waited for a global pandemic to start to thinking about your estate planning needs? Take heart: You are not alone. It is surprisingly common for people to either not realize the importance of estate planning, or to put off dealing with this sometimes-uncomfortable topic until the last moment.
In these uncertain times, however, many Americans are ready to start seriously planning for a potential medical emergency. Being prepared and educated can help make the process less daunting.
Now is a good time to review the top steps you should take and the things you will need if you or someone you love is going to the hospital. Every state has different laws (and you should speak with an experienced local attorney to learn more), but the following tips should help put you in a good position if the worst should happen.
1. Get Your Health Care Proxy Ready
A health care proxy (sometimes known as a power of attorney for health care) is one of the most important estate planning documents a person can have. It allows you to give another person the power to decide what medical treatment you receive if you ever become incapacitated and unable to do so yourself. The person you appoint (your “proxy”) should be someone you trust implicitly, and with whom you’ve discussed your health care wishes. Having a health care proxy in place helps prevent stressful situations where, for example, multiple family members disagree as to a particular treatment, or someone who doesn’t know your preferences must make medical decisions for you. In many states, medical providers must follow a health care proxy’s directions, so having one can also help ensure that your wishes are followed.
Keep your health care proxy somewhere safe, but accessible to you, so that you or someone close to you can have it ready to bring with you if you must go to the hospital. You might also send it to your doctor or hospital beforehand, so they have it on file.
2. Living Will
This document goes hand in hand with the health care proxy. It is a list of the medical treatments you want (or don’t want) to receive in the event you are incapacitated and terminally ill with no chance of recovering. Among other things, your living will can describe your wishes regarding being kept alive with artificial feeding tubes or ventilators, your preferred health care facilities, and the end-of-life care you’d like to receive. In most states, it is not binding on doctors like a health care proxy can be, but it can nevertheless provide important guidelines for the medical professionals to understand your wishes.
Even more so, it’s imperative that these wishes are made known to your health care proxy, who must be listened to by the hospital. (Indeed, many states allow for a living will and health care proxy to be combined into a single document, known as an advance health care directive.) As with your health care proxy, keep your living will stored in a safe place, and either have it ready to bring with you, or have it sent to your doctor or hospital prior to your trip.
3. Financial Power of Attorney
Whereas a health care proxy lets you give another person the power to act on your behalf with respect to medical treatment decisions, a financial power of attorney authorizes another person (your “agent”) to act for you with respect to finances and property. If you become incapacitated and unable to attend to financial matters for yourself, having a financial power of attorney in place can help preserve your assets, pay your bills and taxes, manage your finances, and generally minimize the disruption your incapacity causes. Because your agent will have extensive authority with respect to your money and property, be sure to select someone that you trust implicitly to act only in your best interests.
4. Legal and Business Documents, Lists of Assets
When someone goes to the hospital, the last thing their loved ones need to worry about is searching for critical paperwork. That’s why it’s important to keep your important documents together in a safe place in your home, and to make sure that someone knows where to find them. This means not only your estate planning documents, but also other all-important documents, like:
- The deed to your house.
- Business ownership documents.
- A list of your valuable property, such as 401(k)s and pension accounts, brokerage accounts and bank accounts with designated beneficiaries.
Many people also include a list of passwords for their important email, financial, business and social media accounts.
5. Health Insurance Card and Medications and Allergy List
In addition to the previous documents and a list of assets to keep together, it is a great idea to keep a list of your current medications, prior and/or current serious ailments, allergies, a list of people to contact on your behalf and — most importantly — your health insurance card.
6. Do the Research Beforehand and Know the Hospital Safety Record and Ratings
To ensure you receive the best possible care, you should try to learn as much as you can now, when you’re healthy, before you may need to go to the hospital unexpectedly. There are many resources for checking the ratings and safety records of your local hospitals. Many states provide these records on their government websites (for example, in New York you can take a look at NYS Health Profiles (opens in new tab)) and there are also independent sites — such as Leapfrog’s Hospital Safety Grade (opens in new tab) — that track safety statistics and hospital ratings by area.
7. Call Ahead to the Hospital and Check in With Your Doctor, But Don’t Trust Dr. Google
It is a good idea, if possible, to let your regular doctor know if you are going to the hospital, what the issue seems to be, and which hospital you are going to. This makes it easier for your doctor to stay in touch with the hospital and, if necessary, to work with them on a treatment plan that takes into account your medical history and specific needs. If there is time, it is also a good idea to give the hospital a call to let them know you are on your way in. If you are going for COVID-19 coronavirus, this is a must.
Whatever you do, do not rely on an online search of your symptoms! Many search engines promote worst-case scenarios to the top of the results, and can thus needlessly exacerbate an already stressful scenario with unlikely (and frequently incorrect) self-diagnoses.
8. Know Your Rights Regarding Your Medical Records
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (“HIPAA”) protects, among other things, your privacy rights to your medical records. HIPAA prevents the unlawful public dissemination of your records without your permission. Every state is different, but you should also have the right to access your medical records. For example, New York State law (Section 18 of the Public Health Law) grants patients access to their own medical records within 10 business days of a request to their doctor or hospital (with some exceptions).
9. What Are Your Rights When it Comes to Getting Discharged?
Patients generally have the right to appeal decisions made by their medical providers and hospital staff about when they are to be discharged. If you feel that you are being asked to leave the hospital too soon, or if you believe you have not been given an adequate post-discharged treatment plan for when you leave the hospital, you may not have to accept it. In New York, for example, patients must be given advance, written notice of their planned discharge date, how they can appeal this in the case of disagreement, and a special phone number to report issues related to their discharge.
Laws in your state may vary, but if you have not received similar information, ask the hospital staff for your discharge notice.
10. Medical Bills
You are entitled to an itemized bill. Hospitals confer with the insurance companies and HMOs regarding your payment and what you will ultimately owe. Review your current plan and educate yourself about what your coverage is before going in. Contact your insurance company, and make sure you don’t need any pre-authorization for treatment. If you feel you have received negligent, improper or fraudulent care, please contact your state’s Office of Professional Medical Conduct.
Zachary Helprin is an attorney and FreeWill legal fellow (opens in new tab) based in New York with offices in New York City and Long Island. His firm, Law Offices of Zachary D. Helprin (opens in new tab), focuses on Real Estate law, Trusts and Estates law, and General Counsel/Corporate counsel for small businesses, start-ups and commercial real estate companies.
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