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WARNING: This story provided is for informational purposes only and is not, nor is it intended to provide, legal and/or financial advice. The reader should consult with an appropriate professional in their particular jurisdiction regarding their individual situation. Any use of the information contained in this article shall be solely at the reader’s risk. No attorney-client relationship is created by the use of the information in this publication.
You’ve got the survival basics covered: food, water, first aid/medical, sanitation/hygiene, security and self-defense — heck, you even have a fully stocked retreat in an “undisclosed” location. This is a great start, considering that the vast majority of the population doesn’t have a clue. But, you still have a nagging feeling that something’s missing.
While some preppers place much of their focus on buying cool stuff, stocking up on long-term food rations, and getting that very latest bug-out bag, some of us realize that a viable survival plan has to be much more than just having awesome gear. A survival plan must protect you and your loved ones in a comprehensive manner, including the most likely scenarios which fall short of complete societal collapse. Specifically, it needs to address your legal and financial vulnerabilities.
Imagine that a crisis strikes, and someone in your family is seriously injured, incapacitated, or even killed. What then? None of us like to think about these things — they’re just too depressing, and discussing them can feel quite morbid. But, if that nightmare scenario happened, would you be prepared for what comes next?
Would you have the legal means to act on that family member’s behalf, or even to satisfy their final wishes in the event of their death? Just when you thought it couldn’t possibly get any worse, it does.
In this article we examine how everyday people can plan to protect themselves and their loved ones against the legal and financial devastation that can often accompany natural or man-made disasters. Whether you’re a prepper looking to expand your knowledge, or a concerned spouse or parent curious to learn more, we help you explore some of the most common legal and financial preps (in plain English) and how they can help you when the unthinkable occurs.
A will, often referred to as a “last will and testament,” is simply a legal document that lets you tell the world your final wishes regarding the distribution of your assets, the care of your minor children, and who will manage your estate. The estate can consist of big, expensive things like real estate and vehicles, but also smaller items like jewelry and family heirlooms. Some assets, including bank accounts and certain insurance policies, may not be covered by the will, since they will usually have named beneficiaries.
If you die without a will, however, the state in which you reside will usually determine the distribution of your assets, and many of these other issues, according to applicable state statutes. In the absence of a valid will, total strangers will most likely be making all these important decisions for you. Reread that last sentence and let it sink in.
The requirements for creating a will differ from state to state and can get quite complicated. Get it right and you can rest assured that you have relieved your survivors of a major burden. Getting it wrong, however, can prove to be very costly, resulting in many unintended consequences. Even though you aren’t required to have an attorney prepare your will, most people will absolutely benefit from an attorney’s experience, expertise, and estate-planning advice.
Hiring an attorney can help you avoid many potential pitfalls of the do-it-yourself will. If you have assets, minor children, or just want to make sure that your wishes are carried out, you should consider creating a will. (See the sidebar for tips on finding and hiring the right attorney for your needs.)
A power of attorney (POA) is a legal document that allows you to appoint an individual or entity to act, make decisions, and handle your affairs while you’re unable to do so. With a POA you can grant legal authority to a capable adult to handle all your personal and financial matters (general) or to deal with one particular matter (specific). Normally, a POA will only be effective as long as you’re alive and competent to make decisions. Some POAs, however, are “durable” — it’ll still be effective even if you become disabled or mentally incapacitated.
Although a POA can be revoked, you’ll mostly likely be bound by any actions taken by the person you appoint, so you should only consider individuals you trust completely with this responsibility. Establishing a POA as part of your overall estate plan makes sense, and is a powerful instrument to protect yourself and your family.
The laws for creating a POA vary from state to state, so as with a last will and testament, to be effective, you need to get it right. It’s best to consult a qualified professional in your area concerning applicable laws and regulations.
A living will, also called an “advance directive,” or a “health care declaration,” is not really a will, but rather written legal instructions detailing a person’s end-of-life medical treatment preferences in the event they become unable to communicate. In many instances, a living will is used to affirmatively state what life-prolonging care the person may, or may not, want.
Imagine that a loved one is seriously injured and unable to communicate. By planning ahead and preparing a living will, that individual can get the medical treatment they want, avoiding unnecessary suffering and medical procedures they didn’t want. Advance directives also relieve family members and other caregivers of the heavy burden and difficult decisions often encountered during these moments.
A living will allows your loved ones and caregivers to be assured that your personal choices are respected, even if at that moment you’re unable to personally communicate those preferences. Living wills are typically prepared as part of a more comprehensive estate planning package including a will and a POA. The authority granted by a living will has no effect after death.
Adults of all ages should consider making a living will since life is unpredictable, and there’s no way for any of us to know when tragedy will strike.
Assembling a comprehensive inventory of all your personal assets can be tedious and time-consuming; it’ll never be as much fun as putting together that killer bug-out bag. But the effort will pay huge dividends the day someone, acting on your behalf, needs to file an insurance claim or to submit any of your information to a court of law.
The idea of having an asset inventory is to organize all of your important information in one easily accessible document. This will potentially make things far easier for those tasked with handling your affairs in your absence. Imagine someone trying to compile all the most intimate key pieces of information about your personal circumstances, without you there to guide them. Where would they start, and how long would it take them? Creating an asset inventory now will save those you love a great deal of grief later on.
Begin by gathering all your important documents and preparing a list. Whenever possible, try to attach copies of statements and other documentation providing account numbers, contact information, beneficiaries, etc. Include all information you think might be helpful, but focus special attention on the general categories listed below:
Your list should also document all your personal information, including:
Note: Make copies of at least three years of income tax returns and attach them to the back of your asset inventory. Also include birth and marriage certificates. Keep a copy of your asset inventory in a safe place and make sure that at least two trusted people know where to find it.
Locating the right attorney is like finding the right dentist, mechanic, or firearms instructor. It requires some legwork, but considering what’s at stake, it’s well worth the effort. Here are some tips to help you get started.
Do Your Research: Start with friends and relatives who have experienced similar circumstances. They can point you in the right direction and maybe even make a recommendation. You can also call your state’s bar association and ask for a referral.
Consider a Specialist: Consider using an attorney who specializes in estate planning and probate law. These attorneys are familiar with the process and the latest changes in the law.
Do Your Homework: Many attorneys have a strong online presence and comprehensive websites that provide lots of information and background, saving you time and effort. But also do your own research. The more informed you are, the more likely you’ll get the results you want. Google is a really good place to start your research.
The Interview: Narrow your search down to a few possible attorneys, call their office, and ask if they’ll provide a free consultation. This will give you an opportunity to meet the attorney in person, ask your questions, and get answers in plain English. (Remember to write out a list of questions before your meeting to avoid forgetting important issues.) It may seem like a lot of work, but these are essential steps to help you end up with the right person and, more importantly, with the results you want.
Fees and Costs: Always negotiate fees in advance. Some attorneys charge by the hour, while others may offer you a fixed fee (also known as a flat fee), which may save you big money in the long run. For routine matters, such as a will or power of attorney, a flat fee is more common. You should also request an estimate of anticipated costs and expenses.
Closing the Deal: Before you sign any papers, carefully read the engagement letter or retainer agreement. These documents set out the terms of the attorney-client relationship, the services to be performed, the applicable deadlines, and fees/costs. All these terms and conditions should be clearly stated in plain English. If you can’t understand what you’re being asked to sign, this might be a good time to take a step back. If you have any questions or concerns, get those issues cleared up before signing anything.
“I can prepare my own legal docs to save money”
That $10.99 do-it-yourself power of attorney or will may seem like a tremendous bargain … until you try to use it and find it’s legally deficient. This nightmare scenario usually unfolds at the worst possible moment.
“There’s no rush, I can do this later”
None of us knows what tomorrow will bring, and there can be serious consequences for even short delays. Failure to plan may one day result in strangers making important decisions for you. Not having your affairs in order can bring about severe financial and emotional strain for a family already suffering from a crisis or disaster.
“Only rich people need a will, power of attorney, etc.”
While creating a will is a relatively inexpensive process, more than half of Americans don’t have a will. Even people with limited assets will benefit from having their final wishes properly documented.
Securing the survival basics will put you light-years ahead of the unprepared masses, but that’s not enough. Forward thinking, preparing for the unexpected, and contingency planning is what prepping is all about. But a successful survival plan must address all your needs and vulnerabilities — and this includes your legal and financial matters. Fail to get this one thing right and you’ll leave yourself exposed in ways you can’t possibly imagine.
Now is the time to calmly sit down and make all the necessary preparations — before the poop starts flying in all directions.
Take the time to examine your options, make the difficult decisions, and document your wishes. But as with all your other preps, having them brings you, and those you love, peace of mind and significantly improves your chances no matter what calamity comes your way. Stay safe, and be prepared.
Richard Duarte is a practicing attorney, an urban survival consultant, writer, and firearms enthusiast. He’s the author of Surviving Doomsday: A Guide for Surviving an Urban Disaster and The Quick Start Guide for Urban Preparedness. For the latest preparedness news and updates, connect with Richard on www.quickstartsurvival.com and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/survivingdoomsdaythebook.