In most Florida estate plans, there are six essential documents which you should have in place. These include the following:
Last Will and Testament. This document allows you to appoint a Personal Representative to oversee your probate estate and to designate your beneficiaries. You can also appoint who will serve as Guardian for your minor children. While a Will does not avoid probate, it acts as a “roadmap” for the probate court to follow in accomplishing your desires. If you die without a Will, Florida law will determine who inherits your probate assets and how your estate will be administered. For parents of minor children, no having a Will to designate a Guardian is unthinkable.
Declaration of Living Trust. This document, also known as a “Revocable Trust,” goes beyond the Will and allows you to implement a means to pass along your property without requiring probate. The Trust also allows you to control the distribution to your beneficiaries over a period of time rather than all at once. This ability to control distribution is especially important for minor children, or for young or irresponsible beneficiaries. While not every person needs a Living Trust, you should at least consult an estate planning attorney to evaluate its benefits in your situation.
Declaration of Living Will (“Living Will”). This is an “end-of-life” document which allows you to express your desires in the event of your having a terminal illness, an end-stage condition, or are in a permanent vegetative state. You can also appoint a person or persons who can speak for you on end-of-life issues if you are unable to do so. Many people remember the tragic case of Terri Schiavo whose family fought for years in court over her last wishes. If she had executed a Living Will, that could likely have been avoided.
Healthcare Power of Attorney (“HCPOA”). In this document, you appoint a person or persons who can make medical decisions for you in the event of your incapacity. This includes authority to authorize treatment on your behalf.
HIPAA Authorization. Federal law prevents disclosure of your medical information without your consent. This document allows your physicians and other medical providers to speak with your family or other designated persons about your health condition. The HIPAA Authorization works together with the Living Will and the HCPOA allowing your designated loved one to address medical issues on your behalf.
Durable Power of Attorney (“DPOA”). In this document, you appoint a person or persons who can act for you on business, personal, and financial matters. This is an essential instrument for seniors and for persons with health issues. Without a DPOA, if you become incapacitated, a court-ordered Guardianship will have to be established.
Having these six documents provides a comprehensive plan to protect you in the event of your disability, incapacity, or death. If something happens to you, your loved ones will have the means to provide for you while you’re alive and to settle your estate with as little inconvenience, cost, and delay as possible. Because these documents involve complex legal issues, they should be prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney. It is not advisable to rely on do-it-yourself documents obtained for the internet or elsewhere.