None of us know what the future holds. Every day, people of all ages experience medical emergencies or die, and they need others to act on their behalf. It is hard to think about, but since none of us know how long we will live, or how long we will live in good health, we each need to prepare for whatever may happen. From the moment you begin to lose the ability to care for yourself (also known as mental or physical capacity) until your death, you will need several types of agents to aid, care for, and represent you. Choosing your agent(s) and the personal representative for your estate now is essential.
Different Roles, Different Responsibilities
As you age, you will need agents for three specific roles:
1. Financial Agent
This is someone you give the legal authority to handle your finances if you reach a point where you do not have the physical or mental capacity to do so yourself. You use a financial power of attorney (POA) or general power of attorney to appoint this person.
2. Medical Agent
This is someone you give the legal authority to make medical decisions for you if you are incapacitated. You use an advance medical directive to appoint this person.
3. Personal Representative for Your Estate
This is someone you appoint to administer your assets (also known as your estate) after you’ve passed. They ensure your will is enforced and your assets are distributed according to your wishes. This person is sometimes called an executor. Note: If you have a trust, you will also need a specific agent known as a trustee.
Qualities Your Agents and the Personal Representative for Your Estate Should Have
One person can fill all these roles, or you can choose different people for each—it’s up to you. We encourage you to think through your options by considering the responsibilities of each role. You may find that someone would be suited for one role, but not all of them.
In our experience, every agent you choose, regardless of which roles they fill, should be:
Is the person you are considering for your financial agent, medical agent, or the personal representative for your estate trustworthy? Can you rest easy knowing that, if necessary, they will make decisions as you would and in your best interest? If you are in doubt about whether you can trust someone to follow your instructions, they are NOT the person to choose as one of your agents, regardless of how close you are emotionally or relationally.
This next characteristic is equally crucial. You may trust someone’s character, but they must also be able to get the job done.
- Is your potential financial agent competent with money? Are their own finances in order? This role requires much more than for them to be good with numbers. They must be fiscally discerning, responsible, and able to handle your finances on top of their own life.
- Does your potential medical agent operate well under pressure? Will they be able to make tough decisions during an emotional time? You may love and trust someone, but that does not mean they are the right person to advocate for your wishes amid prolonged illness or an intense medical crisis.
- Is your potential personal representative for your estate organized and able to handle the probate process? Depending on the size of your estate, this can be a complicated job. It must be given to someone competent, detail-oriented, and who is able to follow instructions.
Your agent(s) will not be operating in a vacuum. They will be interacting with the rest of your loved ones. To help avoid conflict and promote harmony among your family and close friends, choose an agent(s) who has a good rapport with the other people in your life. Knowing that your agent(s) is representing you well will also help relieve stress for the people who love you.
While this applies primarily to your medical and financial agent(s), your agent(s) should be accountable to others. Most elder abuse cases occur when one person is solely responsible for an aging friend or relative. It is shocking how many elders are physically, emotionally, or financially neglected or taken advantage of by someone they trust. No matter who you appoint as your agent, it is wise to have co-agents and backup agents who hold the legal right to check in on what is happening between you and your primary agent(s).
Part of the Whole:
Lastly, your agent(s) should be only one piece in a network of people you build around yourself. Do your best to put people in place to advocate for you as you grow older, particularly professionals with whom you have a good rapport and who will work to protect you. For example, your financial agent may be the perfect person to represent you, but, understandably, they won’t know everything that your financial advisor knows. We recommend you form relationships with various professionals you trust, such as an accountant, financial advisor, and attorney. Once you’ve formed these relationships, connect them with your agent(s), so they can contact one another in the event of an emergency. They will be able to speak to your situation and aid your agent(s) in making the best decisions for you.
No one is perfect, and it’s impossible to predict how life will unfold. But by prioritizing these five characteristics when choosing your agent(s) you are likely to be surrounded by the people who will best care for you.
Do you need help choosing your agent(s) and creating an aging and estate plan? Schedule an appointment with us! We would love to get to know you and help you prepare for the future.