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Attorney Sandra Romaszewski of Fox Rothschild LLP in Philadelphia helps Pennsylvania Veterans with estate planning through the Wills for Heroes Foundation, a nonprofit that provides free essential legal documents for first responders and, in some states, service members. She says it’s hard for people who routinely risk their lives for others to discuss emergencies that may affect them personally.
“But in the event of a death or emergency, your family may face tough decisions and financial struggles because they don’t know your intentions,” she says.
Here, Romaszewski breaks down the documents Soldiers should prepare now to save their family additional heartache in case of tragedy.
LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT
This document states what you (and your spouse) desire to happen to your assets in the event of your death. It names a personal representative who will handle decisions on assets after you’re gone. A will is especially important for parents—whether married or single—to name a guardian for minor children.
If you die “intestate” (without a will), your wishes will not be considered, and the laws of the state you legally reside in at the time of your death will determine what happens to your assets. This is why it’s important for a will to specifically list your beneficiaries.
If you are on life support and can’t communicate your intentions, a living will speaks for you. It goes into effect when there is no chance for significant recovery, and your family has to decide whether to keep you alive. This document pertains to any situation—for example, a car accident that leaves you comatose—and may have nothing to do with a wartime injury.
While a living will addresses your fate on life support, a healthcare proxy allows you to appoint an agent to make healthcare decisions on your behalf when you can’t do so yourself—while you’re under anesthesia during surgery, for example.
“It’s more important for HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] purposes—to be able to receive medical information from doctors,” Romaszewski says. “There are default rules and state laws if you don’t have a proxy, but these documents firmly say who you want your agent to be.”
POWER OF ATTORNEY (POA)
There are different types of POAs. A medical POA is the same as a healthcare proxy. A financial POA authorizes another person to act on your behalf for any legal or economic issue if it becomes necessary.
“They must be carefully drafted so they’re clear on when they start and what actions your agent can take on your behalf,” Romaszewski says.
With a general, or conventional, POA, which is typical for deployments, your designated person can perform almost any legal act on your behalf for a specified time period: manage bank accounts, sell property, buy insurance and enter binding contracts. Including “durable” language ensures the document remains in effect if you become incapacitated. Otherwise, the general POA automatically ends on a certain date, or when you become mentally incapacitated.
If you don’t have a POA and suddenly become incapacitated, your family may have to go through an expensive and time-consuming court action to appoint a guardian or conservator to make financial or legal decisions for you.
Check out these resources for legal document help available to Soldiers.
U.S. Armed Forces Legal Assistance
Army Legal Assistance (for Guard Soldiers on state Active Duty)
Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps
Army National Guard Family Assistance Centers
DoD Military Installations
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
American Bar Association
AmericanBar.org (search for “military legal assistance and civil matters”)