Recent numbers suggest why some individuals face a dilemma when naming a financial or medical surrogate during the estate planning process. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, there are a couple of noteworthy trends occurring in the United States population. Fewer people are getting married, and fewer people are having children. In 2014, according to the survey, 47.6% of women aged 15-44 had never had children. That figure was up over a percentage point from just two years before, and was the highest since the Census Bureau started tracking that information in 1976.
Politicians, pundits, and people on the street may have many opinions about what the decrease in marriage and increase in childlessness mean for society. But, of course, being unmarried and childless has a more direct impact on the individuals who have no spouse or children.
There are consequences of being unmarried and childless beyond the potential freedom such a lifestyle might offer. If you were to become incapacitated, who would you trust to make your important medical decisions for you?
Who Needs a Financial or Medical Surrogate?
Once upon a time in America, even if you were unmarried or childless, it was likely that you had close family around to help you out. “Maiden aunts” and “bachelor uncles” probably had a sibling or cousin or niece or nephew within a couple of miles. But two things have changed: families have grown smaller, and individuals have become more mobile, crisscrossing the country for work or other opportunities. One result of these trends, paired with the ones noted above, is that there are a lot more people living alone without any trusted relatives nearby.
If you’re young and healthy, this isn’t usually a problem. But what happens when you become ill or incapacitated? While this is typically an issue for older Americans, incapacity can happen to younger people too, through accident or other sudden illness or injury.
Because of this possibility, it’s wise for all adults to have medical and financial powers of attorney. These documents allow someone you trust to make medical and financial decisions on your behalf and take care of your financial business in the event you’re unable to. If you become incapacitated, someone might need to go to court to pursue a legal guardianship to take care of these matters for you, a process that can be cumbersome when immediate decisions need to be made.
If you have no living spouse, children, parents, or nearby relatives, the process becomes even more difficult. But if you have no close family, whom would you appoint to be your agent (person acting on your behalf) in a medical or financial power of attorney?
Choosing a Medical or Financial Surrogate
Choosing a medical or financial surrogate is not a casual matter. The person you choose may have nearly unlimited access to your finances and may literally make life-and-death decisions for you. These are not powers that you grant to a friend from yoga class or the neighbor across the hall who seems like a good guy.
Your first step is to consult your estate planning attorney and to speak candidly with them about your situation. It’s possible that your attorney, or a financial professional with whom you have a relationship of long standing, would be willing to act as your agent under a durable financial power of attorney, handling financial decisions and transactions for you in the event you become incapacitated.
However, legal and financial professionals are unlikely to want to make the much more personal choices that a designation of patient advocate entails. That said, your estate planning attorney may be able to steer you in the right direction to find an agent; given the trends discussed above, your inquiry is probably not the first time they have dealt with a client in this situation. There are charities that work with senior citizens which may have employees or volunteers who can serve as your agent. Your attorney may be able to steer you to one of these. Alternately, if you’re involved with a church, synagogue, or other religious organization, your clergy member may be willing to act on your behalf or recommend someone who can.
If you have a strong friendship with another person who has no close family members, you might even agree to serve as financial or medical surrogate for each other. Just be sure that you completely trust the other person, and if the relationship changes, consider finding someone else to serve as your agent. No matter whom you choose, be sure before drafting any documents that they are willing to take on this responsibility.
You may also be interested in: