Disabilities take many forms, and not all of them affect a person with special needs’ ability to make decisions. In fact, although many, if not most, people with either mental illness or some form of cognitive disability may require significant care, they can still carry out most day-to-day activities. In most cases, people with disabilities have the capacity to create their own estate planning documents, and in some cases it is crucial that they do so.
One scenario that often arises has to do with “HIPAA” regulations. HIPAA, which stands for Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, is the primary federal regulation governing a patient’s private medical information. HIPAA gives a patient the right to manage his/her medical information and regulates who can access that information. Because medical providers must follow HIPAA regulations, it is difficult for caregivers who legitimately need to access another person’s medical records, often in an emergency, to do so without a health care power of attorney that authorizes the information’s release. Under HIPAA, doctors in these situations can disclose medical information to patients’ families, but they are not required to do so without a release from the patient.
Parents of children with special needs often bump into these restrictions for the first time when their child reaches 18 and obtains his/her own right to privacy under HIPAA. If the child is not under guardianship, either because he/she does not require it or because no one has obtained it, it may be hard for a parent to obtain information from a doctor or hospital without some form of HIPAA release from their child. In these cases, it is important for the child to execute a valid health care power of attorney and living will, if they are able to do so. The health care power of attorney and living will not only allows access to medical records, but will also provide that the child’s wishes are carried out if he/she ever requires serious medical care.
Another case for estate planning involves adults with an episodic illness. These adults may be perfectly functional and rational 99 percent of the time, yet they are completely disabled when their illness does strike. Having a functional health care power of attorney and Financial Power of Attorney allows an agent to help a person with an illness manage his/her affairs when necessary, without having to obtain an emergency guardianship when that person falls ill.
Finally, there are people with cognitive disabilities who require assistance only with certain tasks but who are perfectly capable of making estate planning decisions, including the choice of who receives their property.
Attorney Sheri Abrams can help you or your family member create these important documents, and can also recommend additional ways to carry out other important estate planning goals.