Often when people think of estate planning they are focused on the disposition of their assets and minimizing tax implication. However, advance directives are a very important component of any estate plan and they are relevant for every person regardless of their wealth. Advance directives are legal instructions that express your wishes regarding your financial and health care decisions. If an individual has not previously executed advance directives and can no longer make decisions for themselves due to an accident, illness, or mental affliction, legal proceedings in court to appoint a guardian for the individual will likely be necessary. An individual’s family members are not automatically authorized to make decisions for incapacitated family members because Wisconsin is not a “next of kin” or “family consent” state. Guardianship proceedings are exceedingly more lengthy, costly, stressful and public then advance directives.

In Wisconsin there are four different advance directives authorized by statute. The first is the Power of Attorney for Finance and Property. This document grants authority to another person, known as an “agent,” to make legal and financial decisions on your behalf. The powers granted can be broad or limited in scope. Your agent can assist you with your personal finances, insurance policies, government benefits, estate plan, taxes, bank accounts, retirement plans, business interests and essentially any other financial matter.

The second and third advance directives in Wisconsin are the Power of Attorney for Health Care and Declaration to Physicians (a/k/a Living Will). These documents both deal with health care decisions, although the Declaration to Physicians is much more limited in scope. A Power of Attorney for Health Care allows you to appoint an agent to make any health care decisions on your behalf in the event of incapacity. A Declaration to Physicians allows you to only state your preferences regarding receiving or withholding life-sustaining medical treatment if you have a terminal condition or are in a persistent vegetative state.

The final advance directive available in Wisconsin is the Authorization for Final Disposition. The Authorization for Final Disposition allows an individual, known as the “declarant,” to designate and individual to make funeral arrangements upon the declarant’s death. Further, it also allows the declarant to detail their preferences and desires regarding their final disposition and funeral service.

As indicated, advance directives are relatively inexpensive and easy to implement, especially in comparison to the procedure necessary if an individual does not have such documents in place. As with all estate planning issues, it is important to discuss the impact of advance directives with a knowledgeable attorney.