Handling estate planning issues may be the least concern of grieving widows or widowers. However, there are certain steps they have to take as soon as possible. Surviving spouses should review and update existing legal documents to ensure that they will be protected during their lifetime and to address what will occur after they die.
For powers of attorney that named the decedent, surviving spouses should designate someone they trust. They will also have to determine when the power of attorney can be used, such as whether it can be used only when they are incapacitated or at any time. If a power of attorney form is not properly updated and a surviving spouse loses the ability to sign documents, it will be necessary for the courts to become involved, which can be an expensive and lengthy process.
Health care proxies are another type of estate planning document that should be reviewed and updated. A health care proxy, or medical power of attorney, specifies who will be making medical decisions on behalf of individuals who are no longer able to make those decisions for themselves. If the deceased spouse was listed as the health care agent and an alternate agent was designated, that person will automatically become the new health care agent. If the alternate is no longer appropriate or if there is no one listed, it will be necessary to designate someone.
An estate planning attorney may evaluate the circumstances and goals of clients and may suggest different types of estate planning documents to be completed to protect their assets and ensure their wishes are honored if they are incapacitated or after they die. Assistance may be provided with drafting powers of attorney, wills and the provisions of trusts.