Your estate plan will reflect some of the most intensely personal decisions you will ever make. However, the “final product” that goes down on paper in your documents is often one born of an in-depth interactive process, possibly involving many people, including you, your estate planning attorney and your loved ones (especially those designated to make decisions on your behalf.) As with any process like this, one of the main keys to achieving optimal success is communication, in order to ensure everyone is “on the same page” and that your true wishes will be carried out when the time comes.
When you decide to begin the process of planning your estate, there are lots of decisions you'll have to make. For many people, among the first to leap to mind are decisions about the distribution of their wealth. While these decisions are extremely important, there are many more choices that have to be made in establishing a complete estate plan. Sometimes, some of the most difficult choices to make involve planning for your incapacity and end-of-life care.
Whether you are making financial decisions or personal ones, it is extremely important to communicate freely and fully with your estate planning attorney. Your attorney will, in the course of the estate planning process, be seeking to combine his/her knowledge of the law with the factual information you provide in order to put them together and make recommendations about what kind of plan works best for you. The only way your attorney can provide you with the best service is if you are candid and forthcoming. Holding information back will only impair your attorney's ability to give you a plan that best reflects your goals. Say, for example, that you have a deep and profound aversion to the idea of living while in a permanent vegetative state. It is important that you share information like this with your attorney, even if you know that your loved ones might disapprove.
Speaking of those loved ones, it is vital that you communicate your personal medical and healthcare decision making perspectives with them, too. If you are selecting one (or more) of your loved ones to serve as your agent (also sometimes called a “proxy”), then you should be sure to communicate carefully with those loved ones. If order for them to do the best possible job as your agent, and being a voice for what you want done, it is essential that they know exactly what you want and why you made the choices you did. By completely understanding your goals and the reasons for them, your loved ones can more effectively carry out your objectives. You should also communicate with those loved ones who will not be serving as your agent in any decision making capacity. Sometimes, one of the biggest enemies of a successful estate plan is surprise on the part of a relative or other loved one. Surprises can often trigger emotional responses that can lead to long-term family strife or even litigation challenging your wishes. Short-circuit that possibility by making sure none of your loved ones are surprised about your goals.
For many families, this communication can be difficult. While it is often challenging to face one's own mortality, it can often be even more painful to face the mortality of a loved one, so this conversation maybe more challenging for your loved ones than for you. Nevertheless, it is a necessary one to have. (Your attorney probably won't mind if you use him/her as an excuse if you need to tell your loved ones, “I don't enjoy this either, but my lawyer says I need to talk to you about this without procrastinating.”) However you go about it, do whatever it takes to have this discussion.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, you need to communicate with yourself. This is something you'll do before communicating with anyone else. Decide which things matter to you… and which don't. At what threshold would you want to discontinue medical treatment designed to extend your life… when you stop recognizing your loved ones? When you can no longer get around independently? When you're in severe pain all the time? For each person, the answers to these questions are different. It is important to get a clear handle on your own preferences first and then move forward with planning.