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Avoiding probate just one benefit of estate planning

A great deal of focus within estate planning is centered on the best way to transfer assets to children and grandchildren after the death of a loved one. For couples in New Jersey without children, a different estate planning approach is often taken, and the focus becomes how to best ensure that one's own needs are taken care of in the event of an incapacitating illness or injury. It is one thing to consider how one would like to be cared for in such circumstances, but another to actually structure a plan to make sure that one's wishes are followed in this most important regard. This aspect of estate planning is often overshadowed by a focus on passing on assets and avoiding probate.

If an individual becomes injured or ill and can no longer make his or her own decisions, a process must be followed to grant decision-making authority to another party. In the best outcomes, couples will have taken the time to designate the individual(s) who are best suited to play this role. This often takes the form of each spouse choosing the other to represent their medical and financial decisions in the event of incapacitation, but there are certain circumstances in which a third party is the best person for the job.

Designating this medical or financial proxy is done by means of a medial or durable power of attorney. When these documents are absent, a court of law is often tasked with determining who should make these essential decisions on one's behalf. The court could decide that one's spouse is best suited for this role, but that outcome is not guaranteed. Furthermore, if there is a difference of opinion between one's spouse and other family members, the courts can be asked to intervene.

Having the power to make decisions that are in line with one's own values and wishes is a primary concern. In terms of the management of an individual's health care and finances after a incapacitating event, having health care and/or durable power of attorney documents in place is the best way to ensure a favorable outcome, should these powers ever need to be put into use. For New Jersey residents who do not have children, addressing these needs is often a top priority, even more so than passing on assets or avoiding probate.

Source: greenbaypressgazette.com, "Estate planning for childless couples", Carissa Giebel, March 30, 2015

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