The pandemic has prompted people of all ages to consider wills and emergency health plans.
At a minimum, lawyers recommend New Yorkers complete a health care proxy and consider a power of attorney, which, respectively, allow others to steer their treatment and finances, if necessary.
Here are definitions and resources to help with end-of-life planning:
Definitions and documents
When and why
Consider and codify your preferences when you’re healthy because documents cannot be finalized if there are questions about your ability to understand what you’re signing, said Maria Hunter, director of the public benefits unit at New York Legal Assistance Group, which provides free financial planning and legal assistance to low-income New Yorkers.
Be aware that if your wishes do not match the state’s framework, you will want to draft your own plans. Working with an attorney becomes more important when your preferences are "jumping the line," according to Erika Verrill, attorney for the adult home unit at Nassau Suffolk Law Services, a nonprofit.
Health care-focused documents
Advanced directives guide care for people when doctors determine they cannot make their own decisions. Without advanced directives, state law lays out who may act as a surrogate and make decisions on your behalf in institutionalized settings. A court-appointed guardian would be the first person to assume that role. If that’s not feasible, the surrogate power shifts to a spouse, then an adult child, a parent, an adult sibling, and finally, a close friend.
A health care proxy empowers an agent to act on your behalf, when necessary, and may include specific preferences. A health care proxy can often be completed independently of a lawyer. The state Department of Health has forms available online at on.ny.gov/3je85hS, which must be signed by two witnesses.
Another option is a living will, which focuses on specific personal choices and may be used to advise an agent, caregivers or medical professionals.
Financial and administrative concerns
Estate planning refers to tools for managing financial, legal and administrative affairs.
A power of attorney document appoints an agent who can execute transactions and handle administrative affairs on your behalf. For instance, an agent could pay your bills if you were hospitalized.
A trust can be set up to ensure you meet financial eligibility requirements for certain government care programs and to protect loved ones, such as children, attorneys said.
Wills specify what will be done with your possessions after your death. Wills may be able to ensure that certain expenses are covered before your assets are used to pay debt, Hunter said. Absent a will, state law includes a formula for divvying up possessions after death. Default rules are outlined at bit.ly/3478Ova. For example, if you die with no spouse and no children, your parents inherit everything.
• You can inquire about whether you meet income and asset restrictions for receiving free assistance from the New York Legal Assistance Group at 929-356-9582 or nylag.org/hotline.
•Nassau Suffolk Law Services does not charge while assisting low-income people with Medicaid-related legal issues and helps adult home residents and people with HIV/AIDS with emergency health care and nonfinancial end-of-life planning services. The organization can be reached at 631-232-2400 and 516-292-8100.
•If Long Islanders aren’t eligible for free legal aid, Hunter suggested asking private attorneys about sliding fee scales.
•Hunter said freewill.com stands out from other digital resources because it seeks input from trusted organizations, but she said its automated process is not a substitute for professional help. Like other digital planning tools, freewill.com’s products generally require witness signatures or notarization to be valid.