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Paperwork and Why It Matters

This morning I was part of a discussion about legal marriage and whether it's necessary or useful. I don't think it's necessary, and I think it's usefulness varies, but I ended up on a tangent about why I'm married, and then paperwork in general, and I have a lot of feelings about this.

My spouse and I have been together in one way or another for almost 20 years, functioning as a married couple since 2009 and legally married since it became an option in 2012 in our state. While we were able to put together paperwork that covered much of the same ground as marriage beforehand, we still made the decision to get married almost immediately for one reason: health.

Not health care, even, though domestic partner benefits used to be a complicated minefield before federal marriage recognition simplified things for taxes, but health. I've had my share of serious health issues over the years, and my spouse has had their share of sitting anxiously in hospital waiting rooms while I was in surgery. There were times and places in the last twenty years hospital access has been denied for me because I wasn't legally married to my partner, though thankfully for me it hasn't been within the last 10 years. For other people, in other places, it can be much more recent.

Marriage doesn't guarantee safe treatment, but it makes things simpler. And so we got married. (In a library, but I digress.) When our child was born, I was automatically listed as the father because we were married. I could have done a second-parent adoption (and there are those who recommend one regardless) but it was certainly simpler. Our taxes are simpler since we don't have to decide who benefits the most from claiming that child now.

In an ideal world, paperwork exists to make things simpler. You put what is important to you in writing so that other people know what matters to you.

For example, I am putting my thoughts on paperwork and financial enmeshment here, so other people will know how I feel about them.

Medical Power of Attorney

What is it?

A power of attorney is a legal document that grants you the power to act on behalf of someone else. Also called an Advanced Directive, a medical power of attorney lets the person of your choice have control of medical decisions that need to be made when you're incapacitated.

Why do you want it?

If something happens to you, would you rather your best friend got to tell the doctors what you'd want, or do you want them calling your parents? If the idea of your parents having the power to answer that question makes you uncomfortable, you need a medical POA (aka an Advanced Directive) to show hospital staff that your friend is the one who should be making these important decisions.

Living Will

What is it?

A living will is a legal document that explains what choices you want made on your behalf if you're incapacitated. It usually lists specific instructions, like whether you'd want to be kept alive under certain circumstances.

Why do you want it?

It takes the guesswork out! A living will is a good compliment to a medical power of attorney. The living will outlines your choices in specific situations and the power of attorney allows someone you trust to make decisions when your situation is more nuanced.

Financial Power of Attorney

What is it?

Like a medical POA, a financial Power of Attorney names someone who is able to make financial decisions on your behalf.

Why do you want it?

If you're going to be in a situation where you can't reach your financial service providers- jail, overseas, unable to travel, etc- and you want someone to be able to talk to your bank on your behalf. You can create a financial POA that will only be triggered if a condition is met, such as if you're unconscious or imprisoned or whatever, as well. Not everyone needs one, but it can be really handy to have one.

Will

What is it?

I feel like this is the one everybody knows. Your will is what you want done with your stuff when you die.

Why do you want it?

If you want anyone other than your legal next of kin to get your stuff, you need a will. If you have anyone that's dependent on you that you want to be sure they're provided for, you need a will. If you think people will fight over your stuff, you need a will. "Stuff" here means not only physical stuff, but also intellectual property, so if you have any writing, art, music, anything that you want to outlast you, you should have a will. Mine talks about what I want done with my writing and who I want to have guardianship of my kid if something happens to both me and my SO.

I'm Dead Now What file

What is it?

Separate from your will, this is a letter or document intended only for a significant other, close friend, or other individual or small group outlining other things you think they want to know if you're no longer around.

Mine includes things both specific to-dos like "if something happens to me, here's how to let my employer know and once you have a death certificate here's all the places you'll want to contact to close my accounts" and more abstract things like "here's what I'd recommend you do with the funds from my life insurance" and "here's information about filing for SSI survivor benefits for our kid because I'm the kind of nerd who knows this shit and you've probably never needed to" and "here's an explanation of the file system I use for family pictures on the media server" and stuff like that. Some people also use them to talk about what kind of service or rememberance they'd like to have.

Why do you want it?

If you have ANYTHING you've set up in a particular way that makes sense to you but may not to someone else, or you have a plan that if you died your SO could do X and Y and be set for a while, you should write it down because you won't be there to explain it, and no matter how together of a person someone is, right after the death of a loved one is not when we are at our best remembering a hundred thousand tiny details.

Recently I got an update on a fanfic that is unfinished, from a family member of the author, explaining that the author had passed away but they had her notes and knew it mattered to her so they were going to find a way to share what she had intended. That inspired me to add some additional notes to my file, so my SO knows what I'd like done if that happened to me.

A Joint Bank Account

What is it?

A bank account that has both you and your significant other as account owners.

Why do you want it?

I recommend having household expenses set up to come out of a joint bank account, because if something happens to one of you, your bills can still get paid without you having to do anything more complicated than make sure money is still in the account. Most joint accounts will have right of survivorship, which means if something happens to one owner, the account just remains in the name of the other account owner. Minimal paperwork, maximum continuity.

In addition, if you have any accounts at all that list both of you- a lease, a utility, anything- you may someday get a check made out to both of you. It can be much, much simpler to deposit a check made out to two people if that check can go into a bank account both of you share, because then the financial institution doesn't have to go to extra lengths to show they made sure both of you financially benefitted from the check.

An Individual Bank Account

What is it?

A bank account that's just in your name. This could be at the same bank or credit union as your joint account or at a separate one.

Why do you want it?

No matter how much you love and trust your SO, it's good to have something that's just yours. Even if all you use it for is making surprise Christmas purchases, you know it's there in case anything ever comes up.

A Beneficiary on Your Individual Bank Account and Any Other Account That Lets You List One

What is it?

A beneficiary is the person who will receive the benefit of the account if/when the criteria is met. The beneficiary on your life insurance is who gets paid when you're dead. The beneficiary on your bank account is who gets access when you're dead.

Insurance folks are generally pretty good about requiring a beneficiary, but you might want to make sure yours are updated. Bank accounts usually don't require one, but will allow you to add one.

Why do you want it?

If you have one, it makes everything flow more smoothly into the hands of the person you want to have your money if you're gone. Accounts that have a beneficiary don't have to wait for probate or any kind of estate handling, generally they only need the certificate of death to get things moving.

A Credit Union Account

What is it?

A credit union is a not-for-profit financial institution that's member-owned. Basically it's the co-op version of a bank. They're usually smaller and more local, often offering better rates than banks with many of the same types of accounts and loans.

Why do you want it?

Disclaimer: I work for a credit union. If you have a local credit union, I highly recommend you check out their products and services. Most credit unions will offer you a better rate on loans than most banks, and many have products designed for people who are building or rebuilding credit. My coworkers in lending will look for alternative options if they can't get someone approved for the first thing they applied for, my coworkers on the phone will do our very best to solve your problems, and a real person is involved in pretty much every step of the process. Local credit unions are also more able to listen to their members and support their local communities; every local CU I know of donates money and pays employees to donate their time to local charities. We listen to member feedback and can act on it.

What else?

These are the things I have opinions on off the top of my head. I'll probably add other things later if I think of them.

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