What is “pauper planning”?

Pauper planning is more than just a catchy name for an estate planning blog – it is the idea that a person need not be of the wealthiest 1% of America to benefit from estate planning.  Everyone, from the wealthiest of people to the young professional just starting out in life, can benefit from a properly crafted estate plan. I have found that most clients benefit from a discussion about the estate planning process and the documents involved.  I think that is a fitting way to start this blog – by identifying some of the pieces of the typical estate plan and showing how they affect the typical family.

The basic documents that should be in every plan include a Will, Financial Power of Attorney, Medical Power of Attorney and Living Will.  Trusts are common planning tools but their utility really depends on the types and location of assets and the ultimate goals of the client. The Will is the most common and known document of the bunch.  This document identifies how property is to be passed and who is responsible for making this happen.

If someone dies without a Will, the laws of the state of the decedent’s domicile or location of property will dictate how the property is passed.  Letting the state determine how your property passes after your death is called intestate succession.  The laws of each state are different, but needless to say, a client will typically have much different ideas of how their property should be distributed at their death.  A person’s Will ensures that everything they have amassed during their lifetime will be distributed according to their wishes. Almost as important as how property is distributed is nominating the personal representative who will do the actual work.  Property that passes via a Will will need to be probated.  Probate can become very complicated if the wrong person is put in charge of the process.  In addition to nominating a personal representative, the Will also allows the nomination of a guardian and conservator of any minor children.  All of these decisions can be left to the discretion of a judge and interpretation of state law if no Will exists.

The Financial Power of Attorney is a document that grants another person the authority to make financial decisions on behalf someone who has become incapacitated.  Without the grant of this authority, a person would need to be appointed conservator of the incapacitated person in order for any financial decisions to be made on the incapacitated person’s behalf.  This authority becomes very important if medical bills needs to be paid, mortgage payments become due or, possibly, a special needs trust needs to be created to collect insurance funds on behalf of the incapacitated person.  The cost of drafting and executing a simple Financial Power of Attorney is much less than the time and cost of a drawn-out battle between the spouse, parents and adult children from a previous marriage to be appointed conservator. The issues with inter-family squabbles are present with medical decisions as well.

A Medical Power of Attorney identifies who is supposed to make medical decisions for a person after he or she becomes incapacitated.  Financial decisions can cause problems, but decisions regarding whether someone lives or dies are a completely different animal.  The simplest way to prevent any issues is to appoint a medical proxy to make decisions on your behalf.

Unfortunately, many people are misinformed as to the rights of spouses in Colorado regarding medical decisions for an incapacitated spouse.  According to Colorado law (C.R.S. 15-18.5-103), a spouse will be consulted by the attending physician when no advanced directive (more on that later) and no Medical Power of Attorney has been appointed.  However, the physician is also required to consult with any other “interested person” the physician can find.  For the sake of this consultation, “‘interested persons’ means the patient’s spouse, either parent of the patient, any adult child, sibling, or grandchild of the patient, or any close friend of the patient.  C.R.S. 15-18.5-103(3).  Not only do each of these people have a say, but the decision has to be unanimous regarding the election of the incapacitated person’s healthcare proxy and any decision that the healthcare proxy makes on your behalf.  In other words, the person’s health care is essentially under mob rule. How is a stalemate broken?  By the courts of course!  Who better to make these decisions than a judge who has never met the incapacitated person.  Anyone wishing to be appointed as the healthcare proxy can file for guardianship, and it is up to the court to determine who is the best person for the job.  It is easy to see how this process could become drawn out with hearings and appeals only to leave the incapacitated person in limbo – remember Terri Schiavo in Florida?

The last document, the Living Will, is similar to the Medical Power of Attorney.  However, this document is typically only concerned with the advanced directives concerning life-sustaining procedures when the incapacitated person has been diagnosed with a terminal condition or is in a persistent vegetative state.  These decisions can be made by the Medical Power of Attorney, but clients often feel better make these decisions for their designated agent.

All of these documents are an important part of anybody’s estate plan, and none of them are contingent upon the amount of a person’s assets.  The millionaires in the world may have more complex estates that require additional considerations, but here is the proof that even the paupers need to adequately plan. Estate planning for most Americans is deciding who takes care of you, your property and, most importantly, your family when you cannot.  Asking the State of Colorado to make those decisions is often times inadequate and results in something contrary to what the decedent/incapacitated person would have wanted.  Do not leave anything to chance!  Paupers unite, and start your planning!


Patrick Curnalia is an estate and tax planning attorney with Curnalia Law, LLC.  Patrick has worked with many clients to help them achieve their planning goals.  Our firm services the entire Denver area and is located near the Denver Tech Center.  Find out more about how our firm can help you by visiting our website at www.curnalialaw.com.

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