First responders across the U.S. have worked tirelessly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to protect and treat the ill and injured at substantial risk to themselves. No one wanted to learn about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in the middle of a pandemic. A lack of knowledge on how the virus will behave and how to treat it meant first responders walked into hospital rooms and homes to help people infected with the virus without knowing how exposure would ultimately impact them.
Some first responders lived separately from their families in campers or hotel rooms to protect their families from COVID-19 at enormous emotional, financial, and physical expense to themselves. What follows are ways to help you protect your family, whether you are injured and unable to make your own decisions or have passed prematurely.
Managing Your Affairs When You are Injured or Incompetent to Make Decisions
No one likes to think about a time when they may need to depend on others to make decisions for them. First responders are used to being decision-makers for others. As a first responder, you chose a profession in which you help and protect others. Needing someone else to make decisions for you may seem unfathomable. Unfortunately, every day people are involved in accidents or are seriously ill. However, you can take steps to protect yourself and your loved ones should this ever happen to you.
While you cannot work, disability insurance can help you supplement some or all of your income, depending on your level of coverage. Short-term and long-term options are frequently available through your employer. Having adequate disability coverage can ensure you and your loved ones will have the financial means to pay the bills while you are ill or injured, allowing you to focus on getting better! If you don’t have disability insurance coverage, or think your coverage doesn’t meet your current or future needs, talk to your insurance agent about your options.
Financial Power of Attorney
Many first responders work long hours, making it impossible to get to a bank during standard business hours. Imagine needing to transfer an IRA or sign an important financial document for a home sale in the middle of the pandemic. This is a simple example of how having a financial power of attorney can help. A financial power of attorney is someone you choose to act as your agent. This person can handle the financial matter you specify as long as it falls within your state’s laws. The court will appoint a financial power of attorney if you have not appointed one and cannot manage your financial affairs. Appointing your financial power of attorney means you, not the court, choose the person trusted to manage your financial affairs.
Medical Power of Attorney
Just like you can appoint a financial power of attorney to handle your financial affairs, you can appoint a medical power of attorney to communicate or make healthcare decisions on your behalf. Suppose you are ever in a situation where you cannot communicate, such as being on a ventilator, and do not have a healthcare power of attorney. In that case, the court will select someone according to the state’s default statute. This person may or may not be the ideal person to express your wishes.
Advance Directive or Living Will
An advance directive or living will allow you to put in writing your wishes regarding end-of-life decisions. Having a living will provide your loved ones with explicit instructions on your end-of-life preferences, which can ease tensions and reduce stress as they try to navigate an already stressful situation.
HIPPA Authorization Form
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) protects your personal health information. To designate who can receive your health information, complete a HIPAA authorization form. This form does not give people named on the document the authority to make medical decisions for you, but it allows them to learn about your medical condition. Like a living will, a HIPAA authorization form can reduce stress and tension if you are ill and unable to communicate with your loved ones.
Revocable Living Trust
A revocable living trust is a tool you can use to appoint someone to manage your property and money without court involvement. Putting your assets into a revocable living trust during your lifetime can preserve them for your loved ones without going through the probate process. In most cases, you would appoint yourself and your spouse (if married) as the initial trustee and continue to manage your property and money throughout your lifetime.
After you die, the person you appointed as your backup trustee would step in and manage your trust. Taking these steps makes it possible for you to designate what happens to your money and property upon your death. To allow the trust rules to persist after your death and control assets such as your retirement accounts, name your trust as your beneficiary instead of changing ownership.
Protecting Your Loved Ones After you Have Passed Away
A revocable living trust that provides instructions for your property and money after your death is one way to protect your loved ones. Another is to ensure that you have adequate life insurance to meet your financial obligations. Talk to your insurance agent and financial advisor to discuss your financial obligations, whether personal debt or caring for minor children, to learn how much life insurance would be needed to meet your needs.
Ensure that your beneficiary designations are properly completed for all of your financial accounts.
This process may be more involved if you do not want your beneficiary to receive their inheritance in a lump sum or your minor children are your beneficiaries. Talk to your financial advisor about strategies you can use to protect your money from spendthrifts and people with creditor issues.
Protecting Your Money and Property From a Lawsuit
First responders always have the potential of lawsuits in the back of their minds. The nature of your profession makes you a higher risk for lawsuits. While laws vary by state, consider meeting with a financial advisor or insurance agent to verify whether you have enough professional liability insurance.
The way you own property and businesses can also offer some level of protection or increase your liability exposure. While the extent of protection varies by state, the way you own property may protect it in a situation in which only one spouse is sued.
Being proactive is key here because once you know of a potential lawsuit or are involved in one, you should not attempt to shield your accounts or property from a lawsuit by selling, gifting, or re-titling them.
Maintaining Your Privacy
HIPPA helps maintain your medical privacy. However, you need to take additional steps to protect your financial or personal privacy. For example, by purchasing your home in the name of a joint revocable living trust with your spouse and naming them as the trustee, if they are not a first responder, makes the property’s owner the trust, not you. Even though you are not named the trustee, you can still be a beneficiary, allowing you to maintain a level of control over the assets without being the public owner of the accounts and property. However, this ability to retain some level of control means that you lose any asset protection. There are other options available that provide asset protection. The laws vary by state, so talk with an estate planner to determine how you can best balance your need for control with asset protection.
As mentioned above, a revocable living trust allows you to specify in your trust documents how your money and property will be used throughout your lifetime, whether or not you are incapacitated, and upon your death.
Contact an Attorney to Protect the Those You Love
First responders spend every day protecting others. Hopefully, this article has provided some ideas on how you can protect yourself as well.