These Two Emergency Documents Are Critical During the Spread of COVID-19

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Lauren Pitman

Author, Attorney

Life in Washington state has been altered in ways I never could have imagined just ten days ago. My state has been one of the hardest hit (so far) by the new coronavirus, and I have watched as the people in my community try to exert some control over these unprecedented changes to American life.

Some have looked for control in stockpiling groceries or cleaning supplies. Others have made plans to isolate for weeks. In such a time, there is no “right” response, except the response that helps you feel calm, prepared, and in control.

There is one action that might really give you some control—especially if you do contract the illness, which an estimated one-third of the Americans could—and that is making or updating your emergency health care documents. That means ensuring your durable power of attorney and your health care directive are current, signed, and easy to access in an emergency.

I have some clients who desperately want to make changes to their health care documents, but they are in lockdown where I cannot reach them. I am telling you this in the hope that you will take action and avoid a similar situation:

If your documents are outdated or lost, or if you have never created emergency health care documents, get in touch with an estate planning attorney and protect yourself and the people you love.

Make a Durable Power of Attorney Document

If you contract COVID-19, the illness caused by coronavirus, you want to know that you have appointed someone you trust who could make your medical or financial decisions if you could not act for yourself. 

The person closest to you—even your spouse—does not automatically have this power, depending on your state’s laws. You must have a durable power of attorney to appoint the person you choose. This person is called your agent or proxy.

You do not want to find yourself in a situation where there is no known agent to make your decisions, which causes stress and delays for the people who love you and want to see you get the best possible care.

This document is imperative for anyone over age 18. That includes your college-age child. You are not automatically your adult child’s agent. Your child must have a durable power of attorney to nominate the person of their choosing as health care or financial agent. While young people have had fewer cases of critical illness with COVID-19, this document works under many emergency circumstances, so it is nonetheless extremely important.

Make a Health Care Directive

Your health care directive is the other most important document in this pandemic. It offers guidance to health care providers and your health care agent if they must make medical decisions for you. 

Also called a living will, this document covers many different scenarios. If you filled out a living will five years ago or more, it is time to revisit the document and make sure it is current with your state’s laws and changes in the medical field.

Your health care directive is not necessarily an absolute. Your agent may use it as a guideline, along with the specific circumstances of your emergency, to determine the best way to care for you. But your health care directive can offer a lot of peace of mind to your agent, who would be acting under stressful circumstances.

Make Them Accessible

These measures will be for nothing if your documents are not easily accessible in an emergency. You must tell your agent and other key people in your estate plan where to find them, and make sure they have permission to access the documents. You may even want to file the documents with your primary care physician and local hospital.

Other Documents

There are other documents that are part of an estate plan that could be very helpful in a crisis:

  • A HIPAA authorization form
  • Lists of your current bills and medications
  • And details about your medical history.

Comprehensive explanations of all of these documents can be found in the Side by Side Planner. The Planner also includes step-by-step instructions for choosing the right health care agent or financial agent.

I cross my fingers and hope that the worst that happens to your family is a few postponed events and minor inconveniences. But for many Americans, this pandemic has the possibility of altering our lives, and I want you to know that you have the capability of getting prepared. There’s no downside to creating these documents: they will be invaluable if your agent ever needs them, though I hope they never will.

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Disclaimer: The information contained in this article should not be considered tax or legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently and the information in this article may not reflect your own state's laws or the most recent changes in state or federal law. For current tax and legal advice, please consult with an accountant or attorney licensed to practice in your state.
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