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Who will make health care decisions for you if you are unable to do so for yourself? Will family members disagree about your care, especially in the event of terminal illness and life support systems? In a Health Care Proxy you determine who will make decisions on your behalf if the unexpected happens and set out the guidelines for doing so. Your Health Care Proxy can name someone, and several alternates, that you trust to make the decisions that you would make if you were able. If you already have a Health Care Proxy, you should review it regularly to be sure your appointed Agent is still able to perform under the document and that your Agent’s contact information is still accurate. As indicated, it is a good idea to name at least one alternate Agent to act in case your primary Agent is unavailable to act for any reason.

A Living Will Declaration is a statement of your wishes with respect to life support systems in the event you are terminally ill. Although a Living Will is not binding under Massachusetts law, it serves as a statement to your Health Care Agent, as well as your physician, family and friends, of what you want to happen should you be unable to survive without life support systems and not otherwise expected to recover. If you have a Living Will Declaration, you should review it occasionally to be sure it still accurately reflects your wishes.

Also consider adding a HIPAA Authorization to your health care documents, which is a release of your medical records to your Health Care Agent should he or she be called upon to make a decision on your behalf. It may seem obvious that a Health Care Agent will need access to medical records, but with the stringent Federal privacy laws, it is recommended that you have a specific release of records for your Health Care Agent. HIPAA refers to the Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Ace of 1996.

A Power of Attorney is a document that operates during your lifetime. This document grants another person the power to stand in your shoes and take any action you can take with respect to your property and other financial rights. The purpose of this document is to ensure someone can handle all of your financial and legal affairs for you without the need to seek the appointment of a guardian or conservator through the Probate Court (a costly and public process).

Some actions your “attorney-in-fact” or agent might take include: writing checks to pay your bills, opening or closing bank accounts, withdrawing funds from your retirement account, discussing your benefits with the Social Security Administration, and so on. A well-drafted Power of Attorney should enable the agent to do absolutely anything you could do if you were able, even make gifts to your family members or favorite charities.

Note that a Power of Attorney is usually valid as soon as you sign it. It is NOT only effective if and when you become ill, as is commonly misunderstood. If a Power of Attorney was only valid if you were incapacitated, then it would still be necessary to prove you were incapacitated and defeat the very benefits of the document – efficiency and privacy.

A “springing” Power of Attorney, on the other hand, is only valid when you are shown to be incompetent. There is no guarantee that a springing Power of Attorney will be accepted by financial institutions and other entities without a court adjudication of your incompetency, thus defeating the purpose of the document. So, although some clients still feel more comfortable with the springing Power of Attorney, it is not generally recommended.

Each Massachusetts resident can pass up to $1 million at death without a Massachusetts estate tax. This is referred to as the estate tax exclusion. So, it seems to reason that a married couple can pass a total of $2 million to their children free of estate tax. However, without an estate plan, this would probably not be the case.

Consider a couple with $2 million in assets, all of which they hold jointly with rights of survivorship. When the first spouse dies, all of the assets automatically pass to the surviving spouse as the surviving joint owner. There is no Massachusetts estate tax because there is a full marital deduction for all assets passing to a surviving spouse at death – regardless of amount. The surviving spouse now has all $2 million in assets, but can only pass $1 million to the children free of estate tax. The first spouse’s $1 million exclusion was not used and is no longer available to the family. The estate tax due in this example would be about $99,600.

All it takes is some relatively simple estate planning to make use of both estate tax exclusions and pass the full $2 million to the children free of Massachusetts estate taxes!