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Clarifying What Estate Documents You Need

There are countless horror stories out there from families who experienced the death of a loved one only to have that pain compounded by the absence of a will or any accompanying details letting surviving family members know how the deceased wanted to be remembered. Even worse are the situations like that of Terri Schiavo, who suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1990 at the age of 26 which left her brain-dead and in a permanent vegetative state. At such a young age with everything to look forward to, it is not hard to believe that Terri had not taken the time to set up her estate documents or to think about death, critical injury, or debilitating illness. Unfortunately, the ground was laid for a battle between Terri’s husband and parents that would last well over a decade and require multiple court visits as they argued over her end-of-life care until her death in 2005.

We all know the potential impact of not having the right estate documents in place, yet the thought of assembling those feels overwhelming. What exactly goes into an estate plan? How best to ensure that our final wishes are understood and in the hands of the people who need that information, and who are willing to act on it?

At Blackwood, we have extensive experience helping families and individuals gain clarity and understanding around estate planning, and how to document their wishes. Be reassured. What appears to be complex and overwhelming is also very simple. Typically, there are 4 crucial documents everyone should have in an estate portfolio: a will, Power of Attorney, Health Care Directive, and a personal memorandum. Let’s break them down.


This is probably the most critical of the four documents and outlines the details of your estate including executors (who is responsible to see that your will and your wishes are carried out), beneficiaries (who you want to make sure that you pass your assets along to), including the amount of a gift, age they should get it etc.

Power of Attorney - This document is set up for the event that you no longer have the capacity to make decisions for yourself. This is especially essential for business owners, those who are married, and/or those who have complicated assets. If something happens to you (not including death), you want to know your business and finances can continue to flow as normal, something as simple as changing a bank account or mortgage is not possible for a spouse if this document is not in place.

Health Care Directive

This is often known as a Living Will and is the document that would have made the most difference for Terri Schiavo. In an HCD, you can outline your preferences around your end-of-life care and express whether you would like heroic means to be taken and, if so, under which circumstances.


This is the one document that does not require a lawyer to assist in its development. A memorandum essentially allows you a space to document all the things you would like to see take place around your death whether it’s the details of your funeral or hopes for how inheritance will be handled. Often, people feel that they will have time to outline these desires to their loved ones but in the case of a sudden demise or injury, wouldn’t it be nice for your family to hear in your own words, what your intentions were?

After you have completed all of these documents, it is a good idea to ensure that your executor, spouse, and lawyer each have a copy.

Finally, the last thing needed for a successful estate portfolio is communication. The death of a loved one creates a great deal of stress and anxiety and without the appropriate documentation, those feelings are only compounded. Once you have confirmed the details of your estate, you can begin to share the details and your reasoning at a family meeting so that there is a mutual understanding and a lack of surprises for your loved ones. Even better, why not involve your family in the creation of your estate plans, as advocated by Tom Deans in his New York Times Best Seller, Willing Wisdom. What better way to ensure your legacy?

We would be happy to send you a copy. If your estate is complex, you may want or need help to sort out your wishes. We are always available to contact for questions or further details.

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