Articles and Columns

Carissa Giebel column: Emergency Instructions

Sep. 23, 2013 |

In the event of a death or disability of a loved one, keep the following in mind:

  • Search for estate planning documents. They may provide directions for a number of circumstances.
  • As power of attorney or trustee, the assets are not yours. You are safeguarding them for an incapacitated person while they are living. Until the assets are distributed after this person dies, you are safeguarding them for the beneficiaries. When you sign your name and conduct business, it will not be as you personally, but as power of attorney or trustee.
  • Call an estate planning attorney to help walk you through this difficult situation. It does not necessarily have to be the office that assisted the person with their documents. It can be your attorney, or any other attorney that specializes in estate planning.
  • When in doubt, make no financial decisions. In most cases, nothing needs to be done immediately. Sometimes, in an effort to do something, people make mistakes that can cause later problems (increased taxes, lost time, family discord, etc.).

During incapacity, the power of attorney and/or the successor trustee(s) takes over the management of the financial affairs. The term disability may be defined in the trust or the power of attorney. While definitions may vary, it is generally an inability to care for him-/herself or to manage business and financial affairs. Generally, incapacity is determined by two physicians. If no estate planning has been done, there will have to be a guardian appointed by the court to name an agent to act on behalf the person.

Here are some instructions in the event of a disability:

  • If there is a health care power of attorney, the agent may have broad authority to make medical decisions, including placement in a nursing home.
  • If there is a trust, determine whether the assets are in the name of the trust or the trust has been named as beneficiary. If you know of assets not in the trust, the power of attorney agent may be able to assist. Some assets should not be retitled in the trust name, such as retirement plans.
  • The power of attorney or trustee can pay bills.
  • If the disability is likely to last for an extended period, you may want to have the post office redirect the mail.

Here are some instructions in the event of a death:

  • Search for specific instructions for funeral or burial. If none, the family should meet to plan the funeral. Remember that this can be a difficult process as emotions are high, so be courteous and kind to one another.
  • Death certificates can be ordered from the funeral director or other entity (such as the Cremation Society). I recommend ordering at least 10, as it’s cheaper and easier than ordering additional copies later.
  • Notify friends and relatives of the death and any funeral or memorial service.
  • Notify the estate planning attorney, accountant, funeral director, financial adviser, broker, and insurance agents of the death.
  • Before consulting with an attorney, do NOT do any of the following: change any bank or brokerage accounts, withdraw funds from a bank or brokerage account, make any distributions to beneficiaries, use any power of attorney (they become null and void at death), or cash or deposit checks.

Above all, try to remain calm. Do not try to handle everything yourself.

Carissa Giebel is an estate planning attorney and partner at Legacy Law Group LLC. She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or (920) 560-4651.

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