Expect the Unexpected
Expect the Unexpected
Life can change in an instant. Life is great, but sometimes things happen, usually without warning. Some of those things can be good (sometimes very good) and sometimes they are not. Just because something is unexpected doesn’t mean we cannot be prepared.
Recently, the Carolinas LGBT+ Chamber of Commerce sponsored a presentation on this topic. Featured speakers were Connie Vetter, Attorney at Law; Angela Beamer-Ratliff, an advance care planner at Novant Health. This article features some of the key points.
How often does the unexpected happen, really?
It is absolutely natural to believe bad things will not happen to us. There is something called the “availability heuristic,” which means that we estimate the probability based on how many examples come to mind. If we can’t think of many examples, it probably won’t happen, right? Not really. There are days when something major happens: an unexpected announcement, an accident, we hear a diagnosis, or we buy a lucky lottery ticket. We need to ask ourselves what will happen to our hopes, dreams, or goals? What if I cannot work anymore? What if I’m no longer there and the dreams that I’ve built with someone else suddenly change? Just because things are unexpected doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be prepared.
One reality is that 25% of people age 20 will experience a disability in their lifetimes. We might think that disability means that we broke an arm or leg. Again, the availability of examples misleads on the truth. 45% of disability claims are due to diseases. In fact, nearly 15% of workers will experience a disability that will last 5 years or longer.
Those turning 65 or older, have a 70% chance of needing some form of long-term care. For LGBTQ+ people, this increases considerably in complexity, as many of us have experienced discrimination in our own homes by care providers, or in assisted living facilities (usually by other residents), or even our own families, who may have some personal issue with the fact that we are LGBTQ+.
Yes, these numbers can be scary. A lot of people don’t want to think about it and don’t want to address it. The truth is, whether we want things to happen or not, they will – and we can make it much better for ourselves if we prepare.
You need a plan, not a product
Each person or couple has unique circumstances. Some people have a family that will support them through anything. Others have families that would lock out a gay spouse or partner, or worse. Still others have biological families, whom the state would deem next-of-kin, even though they haven’t spoken in years, or even if they’re not who we would want to make decisions for us. The needs of LGBTQ+ people in particular are unique. Therefore, it’s important to think through each situation and ensure that the right plan is in place.
The reality is that we live in a world where the standard expectation is a straight family structure. State laws dictate biological next-of-kin to step in and make decisions for those who have not prepared. Hospitals and emergency room staff might also do the exact same. How would they know otherwise? They cannot make certain decisions on their own. This straight standard also applies to assumptions in legal documents, financial products, you name it….even though it may not be our reality.
I mentioned the statistics around long-term care. The reality is that everyone should have a plan for what will happen if they need care for an extended period of time. I also mentioned that financial products are built around the expectations of experiences for the majority of clients (the majority having a straight spouse, and children, etc). For example, a long-term care policy might require services be provided by a qualified care provider in specific circumstances. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, and there are reasons for it. For many LGBTQ+ elders, discrimination in housing and care is a real concern. Going to a qualified care facility may be the last thing they want. It’s important for them to know the options and decide what is right for them. Really, the question comes down to “if this happens to me, what happens next?” You may not require any insurance product at all! Or, you might find that having the insurance meets an important criteria or goal for you. You will only know this if you compare options. This is one area where I strongly recommend working with a professional financial planner.
Who’s on Your Team?
You deserve to live your life on your terms. You don’t need to deal with being judged or ‘tolerated.’ This is never more important than when you are incapacitated or need care. Working with a professional who understands the needs and nuances of the LGBTQ+ community is important. That includes developing wills and documents with an attorney who specializes in working with LGBTQ+ people.
It’s true, cookie-cutter web-based services for legal document preparation exist, and they may be cheaper than working with a pro—but I don’t know any LGBTQ+ people who fit into a cookie-cutter model. We have unique circumstances and family structures. We are more charitably inclined than our straight counterparts. Many of us do not have children to leave our belongings to. Others leaped over tremendous hurdles to form our families and want those structures protected.
When something shocking happens, people sometimes react very differently than what we might expect. Sometimes, even our closest family members can behave in a way that’s unrecognizable. Those who focus on working with LGBTQ+ clients have seen many different situations. Some of us have seen relatives and family members at their absolute worst. This is unfortunate, but it is reality and it’s something that happens, especially in situations when a family member may have issues with LGBTQ+ people or greed or some other personal issue.
Your team should include your attorney, financial planner or advisor, CPA or accountant, and even your care providers. It’s as easy as giving them the names and contact information for your other advisors, and explicit permission to discuss your situation with one another. Our job as your team is to ensure that we understand your wishes and to ensure that all of your financial, legal and medical paperwork aligns with one another. Strong caution is advised here: This is not the place to take short cuts or to find cheaper options. If you become incapacitated, and your wishes are not clear, or your various legal papers are not in sync, something might happen that is different than what you actually intend.
The Table Stakes: What’s the minimum I need?
This is my list of the absolute bare minimum preparation and planning that needs to be done. Again, each person’s situation is unique and that may add some other items to this list.
- Advance directive (Health Care Power of Attorney and/or Living Will)
- HIPAA authorization
- Durable Power(s) of Attorney
- A will
- A trust, for those with family conflicts or concerns, or need funds to be handled in particular way when you are incapacitated or deceased, or if privacy is a concern
- Annual reviews of all of your financial matters to ensure beneficiaries and trusted persons are up-to-date, that they align to your plans and goals, and that all of your financial matters are accounted for so someone can address them if necessary
Again, this is a bare minimum list. Yes, it may cost some funds to engage with an attorney, financial planner, tax preparer, etc. Those costs pale in comparison with what it might cost in probate and court fees if you are incapacitated or deceased without planning. Note that this is not only for people who die. If you are incapacitated and need a guardian appointed, that also goes to probate court, costing time and legal fees.
Make Sure People Know What’s Expected
True story: In one situation, a person was incapacitated and their financial and legal papers were in a safe in their home, anchored to the floor—a safe that no one could access. A neighbor went to the house, demolished the flooring to get the safe and bring it to the hospital for the person.
LGBTQ+ people are twice as likely to live alone, yet we experience emergencies at the same frequency as anyone else. For many of us, that creates more questions and needs to ensure that our wishes for medical care are respected. For LGBTQ+ people with children, it may also be critically important to travel with adoption or guardianship papers, as well as medical records, etc. This is especially true for anyone who has a child or guardianship for a person with special needs.
Luckily, there are options for our most important papers:
- In North Carolina, the Secretary of State maintains a registry for health care directives
- Many phones include medical information. While this provides emergency notification to Emergency Contacts, it does not include access to medical directives. For iPhone or iOS users, in its next release, Apple will make available a Legacy Contact. Users can name a contact (or several) to have access to their data and iCloud should anything happen to them. A word of caution: this feature is not for current documents or health care forms. The designated legacy contact needs to provide Apple with a copy of the original user’s death certificate in order to access files.
- Health networks, such as Novant Health, will ask for your health directives and other forms. Bring them with you on your next doctor visit, so they can scan and store them.
- Vial of Life, a public charity, is a widely used service. Participants place a sticker near their front door and in the event a paramedic or other emergency professional enters the home, they know where to look for documents.
- There are online services that provide an online “safe” where documents can be stored. As they are specifically designed for these scenarios, they provide checklists, security, etc. to ensure that everything that might be needed is stored and accessed from one place. This may be important to those who live alone, are single, and are relying on friends or chosen family to act as power of attorney or executor of our estate.
Make sure your designated people know where to find your documents. Even though it may be a difficult conversation, talk with them about your wishes, should something happen.
There are many good reasons to be prepared, to “Expect the Unexpected.” Instead of worry about the “what ifs,” we would know how things would be handled, and who is expected to do what activity. Most importantly, it relieves the burden off of the people who would have to make decisions for us when we cannot make them ourselves. It’s a previous gift to the people we love, and to ourselves.