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Whether you need help with estate planning, wills, filing for disability benefits, assigning a guardian, negotiating medicare benefits, residential housing, family conflict, or need help with employer-related conflicts, a good legal representative is a must.
There are multiple resources available to help you find the right representative for your situation. Always investigate a legal representative’s credentials, possible complaints, and track record. There are many fraudulent practitioners that prey on the vulnerable. They can have expensive ads and commercials that tout five-star reviews of their services.
Start with the American Bar Association.
w The Special Needs Alliance is a national, non-profit organization committed to helping individuals with disabilities, their families and the professionals who serve them. Many of their member attorneys have family members with special needs; all of them work regularly with public benefits, guardianships/conservatorships, planning for disabilities, and special education issues.
w Law Help.org helps people of low and moderate incomes find free legal aid programs in their communities, answers to questions about their legal rights and forms to help them with their legal problems.
w National Disability Rights Experts (NDRE) is the nonprofit membership organization for the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Systems and Client Assistance Programs (CAP) for individuals with disabilities.
w National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives (NOSSCR) offers legal resources and materials and fraud/scam warnings.
w National Senior Citizens Law Center (NSCLC) helps low-income seniors.
w Patient Advocate Foundation (PAF) is a national non-profit organization that seeks to safeguard patients through effective mediation assuring access to care, maintenance of employment and preservation of their financial stability.
w The People’s Law organization is a law library offering advice on a wide variety of legal topics.
w Equal Opportunity Employment Commission offers information on dealing with disability and work.
w Disabled World.com offers articles on legal issues relating to disabilities including disability lawyers, estate planning, and services for the disabled.
w The Center for An Accessible Society offers information on dealing with physical disabilities.
w NOLO.com provides information on reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities.
There are online forms you can print and fill out or an attorney can draft them for you. The form may vary state to state. You need to decide whether you want extraordinary measures to keep you alive or if you prefer to have a “Do Not Resuscitate” order in place. These are very difficult decisions to make and very hard conversations to have with your loved ones. However, it is crucial to make those decisions while you still can and that others are made aware of your wishes.
At least one support person needs a copy of these forms. You should take a copy with you to the hospital if you are admitted. You can also ask your primary care physician to keep a copy on hand. Remember to update them if you make changes.
FINAL WILL AND TESTAMENT
It is important to have a final written, legal will. Dying without a will is called being “intestate.” Your estate will be settled based on the laws of the state and will be probated, which means your assets and property will be transferred by a judge-appointed administrator. If your will does not meet certain standards, an administrator will be appointed. The administrator will be a stranger and may make decisions you would not agree with.
It is important to take stock of your financial assets and decide who will receive the money when you die. If you have a spouse, you may wish to leave them enough to help them throughout the rest of their lifetime. Your spouse or partner should also have a will.
If you have children, you will have to decide how to divide the assets among them. If your children are young enough, and your assets significant enough, you may need to leave them the assets in a trust. Naming an underage beneficiary in a will is complicated when it comes to finances. The situation is complicated by divorces, remarriages, stepchildren, etc. Probate laws generally favor the current spouse.
Certain accounts (such as life insurance policies, 401K and IRA, and bank accounts) are not usually covered in the will. Whoever you designated as the beneficiary when you set up the account supercedes the designations in the will itself.
Primary beneficiaries are your first choice to receive your assets. Choose secondary or contingent beneficiaries in case your primary beneficiary dies before you do or does not meet a condition (such as age) for inheritance. This can also prevent going through probate, which can be time consuming and expensive. Use specific names instead of broad categories like “nieces and nephews.”
You should also add primary and secondary beneficiaries on your individual bank accounts, the deeds to your homes and cars, contents of your safe deposit boxes, investments, and insurance policies to make it easier to transfer the assets.
Giving someone durable power of attorney does not automatically make this person a beneficiary of your assets. After you die, this person will not have the right to the money or to even access your account. If you want this person to be a beneficiary, you must state it in your will.
You and your spouse should have separate wills. If you die in an accident for example, the coroner will try to determine who died first. The will of the person who died last will take precedence over the will of the person deemed to have died died first.
Make a list of your possessions, including your personal belongings, and decide who will receive them upon your death. Consult with your loved ones (spouse, children, siblings). You might be amazed how strong opinions can be. You will include a list designating who these items are to go to.
Your wishes and needs can change over time. It is important to revisit your instructions every couple of years or when your circumstances change. Always sign and date each revision to eliminate confusion over which is your most current statement.
You need to designate a guardian for minor children should both parents be deceased.
You need to choose an executor. Your loved one might not be the best candidate. A third party can be more objective. There are many details to take care of: forms need to be filed, taxes and final bills paid, and perhaps a home to be sold. Who is the best (most responsible/capable) person for the job?
Make several copies of your will. If an attorney draws up the will, they should keep a copy on file. Leave a copy with your executor (especially if s/he is not your spouse or family member). Keep one with your important papers at home in a safe or fireproof box. Keep in mind that upon your demise, the safety deposit box at a bank will be frozen until your estate is probated. The contents may not be accessible, even to your spouse. If you have time to prepare, you may want the contents cleared before your box is locked by the bank.
It is best to hire an attorney. The more complex your situation is, the more critical it is to have it done properly. Laws vary state to state.
If your situation is extremely simple or you cannot afford to pay someone (after exhausting all legal aid opportunities), then do-it-yourself kits and forms are available.
You can leave instructions about the type of funeral or memorial service you want, who should officiate, who you want as pallbearers, or what songs should be sung, etc. to lighten the burden of your grieving loved ones.
There are many funeral providers that allow you pre-plan, and pre-pay, for your funeral. Make sure information about your pre-paid plan is left with your important papers. Make sure you also note what the plan does not cover. Include plot deeds or instructions about where you would like your ashes to be stored or dispersed.
You could specify a favorite charity to receive donations in your honor.
You could designate yourself as a tissue or organ donor.
You could draft an obituary in advance or designate a family member to do so.