If you're thinking of putting your own last wishes into writing, or even leaving a crummy bag of sand behind for your loved ones to sift through, there are a few things you should know. First off, I didn't have a legal bone in my body back then, and at this point the makeup of my bones is still pretty ambiguous, so please don't take this as a substitute for legal advice; it's a series of guidelines I've come by through my own experience with end-of-life matters. If you have legitimate concerns, be sure to talk to an attorney.
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And if you don't have time to go to law school, you can try some practical solutions instead. Turns out there are things that everyone can, and should, do, without shelling out extravagant legal fees and bankrupting themselves even further in the midst of a crisis. It's important to be aware of your options, so that if you need to, you can get your affairs in order quickly and efficiently. Recently, I sat down with Peter Ollen, attorney and owner at OllenLegal.com, and he told me just how to do that.
"The most important thing," he says, is to "have a properly executed will, witnessed and notarized. And make sure it's retrievable." This is the ideal scenario. It seems simple, but an an ABC poll from last August suggests that only half of all people have a will. A 2011 article from Business Insider puts the number of people without a will closer to 60%. And the percentage of young adults under thirty who haven't penned their last wishes is reported to be 92%. Very basically, you need to have everything you want or need written out in detail, make sure it's legally binding, and know where to find it. "If not," Ollen says, "There's a default pecking order. Absent of a will, spouse or parents make your decisions." There are also taxes involved with death, and you have to make sure all those pesky bills are paid, otherwise loved ones may get stuck with them.
But what if you're young, like say, my age, and something happens to you, similar to what I went through? How do you have your affairs together then, when you've barely started out in life? "There are resources online," says Ollen. "You can buy forms from LegalZoom.com, for instance, that are guaranteed resources. You can also reach out to your state bar association; they have pro bono and basic guidance available for these situations. If you don't have the resources to get an attorney, reach out to LegalZoom or other document depos. They can offer guidance and the state bar may be able to fill out the forms for you. And, if you're worried about your time or escalating situation, give someone power of attorney so they can handle all this for you, while you focus on the bigger issues."
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You can't always think clearly in the midst of a health crisis. I know I couldn't. So it's a good idea to get things squared away before you ever get into one. If you're getting to the point where it's difficult to juggle, Ollen suggests that you assign someone power of attorney. Make sure it's someone you trust, like a family member or spouse. They'll handle all the legal decisions for you, while you focus on what's really important -- your health.
I didn't have a will going into my cancer diagnosis, or a power of attorney. I ended up writing a letter that I would have tried to pass off as a will had things gone awry. But simply having something in writing isn't enough. Unless, like me, the point of leaving something behind was more for the message you planned to send your family and friends, than it was for the material goods and wealth. Even so, what little you have to give could inspire debate among your loved ones, and even turmoil. Any amount of stressing over who gets what in a time of loss can trigger intense emotional reactions. It's better to be safe and settled, than not have a plan at all.