Life is uncertain, and can be short. Plan ahead.

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Mark F. Winn

The tenuousness and uncertainty of life is always brought to our attention when we see someone we know of who died young. Recently, Luke Perry, star of the '90s hit TV sitcom "90210," died at age 52 due to a stroke. This was shocking. He was wealthy, and he seemed to be in good shape.

His passing should be a reminder to us all that life is uncertain and any of us could go at any time. As Jim Morrison once sang in one of the Doors songs, "Roadhouse Blues": "The future is uncertain and the end is always near." In his case, he passed on at age 27.

These and other deaths are reminders to slow down and try to appreciate each other more and not to get too caught up in the politics of the day. Perhaps, it can be a basis for us to re-kindle our relationship with whomever or whatever we might believe created us.

One thing it should definitely do is make us realize that we should have legal papers in place to address what will occur should we become incapacitated or pass on.

All of us should have powers of attorney to name people who can act for us as our "agent" (for health and for finances) if we become incapacitated. If you do not have that, then there can be formal court proceedings that are costly, time consuming, and demeaning.

If there is no power of attorney for finances and you become incapacitated, then a conservator might have to be appointed and then the court reviews all transactions forever.

This is something people usually wish to avoid.

In such a case, your spouse and children will not be able to obtain your medical records unless you have authorized them to get them. This, too, should be done with a signed release. I call it a HIPAA release. HIPAA stands for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

Next, how will your assets pass on when you do? Will they be given free of trust to loved ones where they could squander it or lose it in a lawsuit or divorce, or will you leave it "in trust," where it can be protected from lawsuits and made sure to stay in your family bloodline?

These are the questions we address with our clients. About 90 percent of them opt to leave assets to loved ones (especially their adult children) "in trust."

There are many considerations, so a representation usually involves an in-person review and a telephone conference prior to signing the papers. It is foolish not to plan ahead to avoid legal problems.

In more than 16 years of providing legal estate planning services, I have seen a few times where planning was initiated and not completed. In those cases, the consequence to the family was devastating.

The moral of the story is this: Life is uncertain; therefore, you should be certain about who will be responsible to take care of you and where and how your family property will pass when you do.

Mark F. Winn, J.D., Master of Laws (LL.M.) in estate planning, is a local asset protection, estate and elder law planning attorney. mwinnesq.com

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