Charlotte Fox was an adventurous woman. She was a serious mountain climber and reached the summit of some of the world’s tallest mountains. She became the first American woman to climb three peaks above 8,000 meters, including the world’s tallest peak. She was a member of a climbing party on Mount Everest in 1996 which encountered disaster on their descent. Several members of the party died. It’s the basis of Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.”
Everyone understands there are risks climbing the world’s tallest peaks. However, with all its risks, she didn’t die mountain climbing. Charlotte was at home alone and slipped on her hardwood stairs and fell, suffering fatal injuries at age 61.
There are few certainties in life. One of the certainties is death. We all know we are going to die…at least we know this in theory. We don’t know when. We don’t know how. But we know that each of us will face death at some point.
Typically, we think it will happen when we’re old and frail. Maybe we expect it when we are age 102 and have a bout of pneumonia. But, sometimes life doesn’t cooperate: “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Robert Burns “To a Mouse.” Sometimes, we die due to a simple household accident, like Charlotte Fox. In fact, more than 18,000 people die each year from household accidents in the United States. Here’s a link to a US News and World Reportpiece about the most common causes of household accidents and how to prevent them.
Since none of us knows when tragedy might strike, it’s best to have a plan in place, in case the unexpected happens. A basic plan includes:
- A Will. A Will disposes of your property at your death through a court process called “probate.” Without a Will, your assets are divvied up among your blood relatives as determined by your state legislature. With a Will, you can alter this distribution and provide protections for your loved ones from their creditors, divorce, or even their own mismanagement. This document is the place you nominate guardians for your minor children. But, a Will only is effective at death and requires the court process, which may be more or less cumbersome depending on your state and the nature and extent of assets involved.
- A Property Power of Attorney. A Property Power of Attorney allows you to designate someone to act for you regarding your property during your life. It allows someone to manage assets in your individual name when you are unable to make the decisions yourself.
- A Healthcare Power of Attorney. This power designates an agent to make healthcare decisions for you when you are unable to make them for yourself.
- A Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Authorization. This authorization designates who can access your protected health information. Without such a document, a hospital or other provider might not be able to tell your loved ones any information about your care, or even that you are in their care.
- A Revocable Living Trust. A trust holds title to property during lifetime. At your death or incapacity, your successor trustee manages the assets according to your instructions in the trust. Since the trust continues at your death, no probate process is required. Depending upon the state, this may save significant time and money and provide privacy which may be lost with probate. The trust may provide all the protections which a Will could provide, including protection from the beneficiary’s divorce, creditors, and mismanagement.
Prepare at least a basic plan. That way, regardless of what dangers lurk around the corner, whether expected or unexpected, you’ll be prepared.
Stephen C. Hartnett, J.D., LL.M.
Director of Education
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
9444 Balboa Avenue, Suite 300
San Diego, California 92123
Phone: (858) 453-2128