Previously, I discussed the precarious state of gays and lesbians in the state of Texas. For more information on this topic, please check out this blog. This is a follow-up to identify some basic estate planning documents that truly everyone needs, but particularly unmarried couples and domestic partners of all orientations. So without further ado, I present the top 5 documents that you need to protect your family and your rights.
1. Medical Power of Attorney
This document would allow your partner, best friend, or whomever you designate to make medical decisions on your behalf in the event that you are incapacitated. In Texas, the default rule is that immediate family members (spouse, parents, or siblings) are the only ones authorized to make choices for you in an emergency. However, if you aren't legally married and you have a strained relationship with your family, the default rule would obviously not be appropriate for you. A medical power of attorney allows you to identify specifically who you are entrusting with this responsibility. Having this in place puts your doctors on notice about who is authorized to act for you and allows him or her to be present in restricted areas in hospitals that are often limited to immediate family.
2. HIPAA Authorization
In order for your partner, best friend, or whomever you've designated to be your medical power of attorney to access your medical records, you will need to execute a HIPAA authorization. This form indicates that you're allowing your private medical records to be accessed by the person you designate. The privacy of your medical records is very important, and this form certifies that your medical power of attorney is authorized to review your medical records to make decisions for you in the event that you cannot do this for yourself. Keeping your loved ones informed about your health needs is important if they have been given this responsibility, so it's unwise to have a medical power of attorney without a HIPAA.
3. Statutory or Durable Power of Attorney
This power of attorney works a bit differently from a medical power of attorney in that it relates to your finances and you do not necessarily have to be incapacitated for it to take effect. Some people such as soldiers and individuals who work overseas for extended periods of time execute statutory or durable powers of attorney that designate someone to manage their finances while they are out of the country. However, it's wise to have this document in place to empower your partner or whomever you designate to handle your finances in the event that you become disabled or incapacitated. The powers of this document are incredibly broad. Your agent will be able to file your taxes, buy and sell property in your name, manage your investments, and other wise have access to your income in the same way that you would, unless you place restrictions on their power. It's very important that you know and trust the person you place in this capacity. This is a great tool for LGBTQ couples because it allows each party to have joint responsibility and access to the other person's finances.
4. Designation of Guardian Before Need Arises
None of us likes to consider the possibility that we might be so incapacitated in the future that we might be unable to care for ourselves, but the hard truth is that it is a very real possibility for all of us. You, and you alone, are best qualified to specify whom you would like to have serve as your guardian if the need ever arises. We all hope and pray that we will never be in the position of needing a guardian and chances are great that most of us will not, but if we are ever in that position, it could be comforting to know that our expressed wishes will still be considered.
So long as you are not already incapacitated, you may designate by a written declaration the identity of guardian for both your person and/or your estate. This means you may designate a guardian for the care of your physical needs (food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and necessities) and for your estate, meaning your financial affairs.
5. Last Will & Testament
This one is self-explanatory. If you have any property that you would like to give to your partner, to charity, or to any individual or organization of your choice, you need to execute a valid will. Without a will, your property automatically passes to your family members.
For more information about how to protect your valuables and your loved ones, please call an experienced attorney to schedule an initial consultation at (713) 574-8626.