From the Philadelphia Gay News

by Jacob M. Eden, Esq.

No matter your age or marital status, certain documents are necessary to protect your rights, interests and intentions. Time after time we have seen instances where a person’s stated wishes — which may have been clearly stated, but not put into writing — were not followed.

Friends and loved ones have been denied access to hospital rooms or visitation rights because, under the law, they are “strangers” to the patient. Estranged members of a patient’s biological family suddenly appear in a health crisis and sue for guardianship of a child, sibling or former spouse.

A same-sex couple was on vacation in Florida with their children when one of the women became ill and died. Her partner was forced to sue the hospital because they would not allow the woman visitation rights or permit her to make health care decisions on behalf of her dying partner.

In another case, a financial services company awarded a deceased gay man’s retirement benefits to his ex-wife, rather than his longtime partner who was named as his beneficiary. It was only after two years of litigation that the deceased’s longtime partner – and not his ex-wife – was finally ruled to be the lawful beneficiary.

These cases demonstrate the importance of documentation to spell out your wishes in case you are unable to speak for yourself. The documents described below are particularly important for LGBT people, and we recommend executing them no matter your age, health, income, or partnership status.

Will:  A legal document that allows you to designate who inherits your money, property and personal belongings after your death.

Health Care Power of Attorney (POA):  Allows you to designate someone else to serve as your health care agent to have access to your medical records and make all health care decisions. A properly executed Health Care POA is critical if you become unable to make health care decisions for yourself.
Living Will: A written statement of your wishes regarding life-sustaining treatment and other care if you have an end-stage medical condition and are unable to communicate those wishes. A living will can spell out your desire for resuscitation efforts, surgery, pain medication, etc.

Financial Power of Attorney (POA): Allows you to name someone else to serve as your agent to make some or all financial decisions.

It may be hard for you to think about these things. However, making these decisions can not only help your friends and family know what to do, but also bring the relief of knowing that your wishes will be followed. You should write down your desires before you become too ill to do so. This is the best way of ensuring that your wishes will be understood and respected when the time comes.

Finally, you should consider an estate plan. An estate plan includes the documents outlined above, but also can include trusts, beneficiary designations, gifts, planning for estate taxes and much more. For partnered LGBT people, an estate plan is very important, no matter your income level. In Pennsylvania, an inheritance tax of 15% is imposed on the value of the assets you leave to your surviving partner. Married couples pay no Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax. The only way for unmarried couples to assure that their partners are provided for is to enact an estate plan that guards your assets to the greatest possible extent.

Jacob Eden is a Staff Attorney at the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania.

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