19 May Estate Planning as a Young Adult
By Marianne Stephan, Paralegal, Survivor & Advocate
Note: This blog was written by a guest contributor before the coronavirus outbreak, but we wanted to share it now, because we believe it is more important than ever for everyone to be thinking about document their wishes. For more information about estate planning during social isolation, take a look at this chart of state laws on electronic notarization and witnessing.
Estate planning for young adults can feel like a daunting task. As a paralegal who worked for an estate and trusts attorney for eight years, and a stage IV cancer survivor, I have a unique perspective into estate planning.
Why is estate planning important? Well, like many young adults when they hear the words “you have cancer,” my head was spinning with a million thoughts, including about staying alive. When you are in those initial stages of a diagnosis it can be hard to take the time to do any estate planning. Therefore, it can be helpful to find the time to make estate planning decisions before you are in crisis.
However, if you happen to be reading this when you are past that moment, and maybe feel like you have “no time,” it isn’t too late. When the hospital gives you the forms and tells you just to name people to make medical decisions for you, my suggestion is to take at least 15 minutes and go to a quiet space. It doesn’t matter if that quiet space is a corner in the hospital, a park, the bathroom, whatever space that feels right to you. Once you get there just close your eyes and breathe as deeply as you can, in and out, repeatedly. This time is about you. It is about clarity. It is not about cancer. Cancer is not the boss. Cancer is something that comes in like a thief – it's a criminal, it's not something that that owns you. So take this time to enjoy the quiet, focus on your deep breaths in and out, in and out, over and over, clear your mind of cancer's noise, listen to your breath, in and out, in and out, over and over. Once you have taken this time for yourself to have this moment of peace and breath, keep all other’s thoughts outside of your space and ask yourself – what do you want to have happen with your healthcare when you are not able to speak and whom do you choose to voice those words for you?
Once I knew I was having my hysterectomy, I wanted to take care of all my estate planning. I knew I needed a Health Care Proxy. Every state has slightly different rules with respect to advanced health care directives. For example, since I live in New York State, in addition to the Health Care Proxy, I needed a HIPAA release form. This is a separate form explaining to the medical agency they can give your proxy – the person(s) you decide to be your voice if you are ever unable to express your wishes – your medical information in order to make a decision about your care. Other states refer to this person as your agent.
You will want your Health Care Proxy, and backup proxy, to know your personal wishes surrounding your medical care. Your proxy and back up proxy should be people you want making the decisions YOU want carried out on your behalf. This is all about what you decide to do with your medical care when you are unable to speak for yourself. For example, if you are under anesthesia and your surgeon finds something unexpected. Your proxy may be called on to guide the healthcare team on next steps to take on your behalf. I admit, that it can be a very uncomfortable thing to talk about but it is helpful to remember that advanced directives are a tool and it is better to make your wishes known. That way you can be free to focus on all the other stuff: procedures, treatments, family, work, bills, and life!
Another component of estate planning that can be helpful is a will. You can have multiple wills throughout your lifetime and by planning ahead you will save your loved ones a massive headache!
Since I did not have enough assets or minor children I didn’t feel like I needed a will. Instead I was comfortable telling my parents what I wanted done with special belongings in the event I died. But every situation is unique.
Lastly, it may be a good idea to have a power of attorney for financial affairs. Again, each state has different rules about how to create these power of attorneys. I also gave my mother all of my banking and bill paying information, any passwords or other relevant information, my address book, and a list of phone numbers and email addresses for friends who I wanted her to keep informed during my (7 ½ hour) surgery. This is the “in case stuff” we should all have somewhere for someone we trust. This isn’t cancer stuff, it’s common sense stuff.
I know this is a morbid and scary topic but it is absolutely necessary that we can talk about it openly! Not only amongst ourselves but to our families and friends. This allows us to take the stigma off of death so that we can look at these advanced directives for what they are, legal documents. Once we are able to see that point we can go on with living our lives knowing that if anything happens everything will be taken care of the way that *you* want it to be. And if you change your mind about anything, the document can be redone, it is not final until you say so.
The goal of this blog was to help my fellow cancer fighters and survivors understand how estate planning can be useful. Know that you are not alone, I have been in your shoes and want to empower you to take control. Estate planning doesn't have to be scary and morbid.
While many of these forms can be completed on your own. If you feel like you would like the help of an attorney, you can find your State Bar Association’s contact information at http://triagecancer.org/resources/stateresources. Many of these organizations have a lawyer referral service that can put you in touch with people who are qualified to help you.