You work out, eat well, and contribute to your 401(k). So you’ve got your health and finances covered, right?
Well, maybe not.
If you’re like me, pondering your demise or planning what would happen if you were in a serious accident isn’t exactly your idea of fun. However, taking the time to think through what would happen if you were seriously ill or hospitalized is as important as planning for retirement.
No matter your age or income, you should prepare a few key legal documents that will ensure your health and finances are looked after. They’ll ensure decisions made about your money or medical care don’t fall to a doctor, judge, or your Aunt Mildred who you haven’t seen since you were 14.
The good news? These documents are all easy to prepare and can be found online. Here’s what you should get started on today.
Essential Health Care Legal Documents
I know—when you’re young and able-bodied, your health insurance card rarely sees the light of day. Even so, whether you’re 20 or 85, it’s crucial to prepare both a Health Care Power of Attorney and a Living Will, both of which protect your medical well-being in the event you can’t make decisions for yourself.
1. Health Care Power of Attorney
If you ever become seriously ill or get into a debilitating accident, a Health Care Power of Attorney lets you choose someone (your “agent”) to make medical choices on your behalf. If you don’t have this document, these decisions will fall to your closest family member. And if you don’t have a family, a court may make these decisions.
Once a doctor has determined you’re incapacitated due to an accident or illness, your agent essentially steps into your shoes to handle any decisions regarding your care. These decisions range from consenting to or refusing medical treatment, choosing hospitals or medical facilities, and hiring and firing your doctors. This person can consult with your doctors and view your medical records to ensure they are making the best choices for you.
Usually, a Health Care Power of Attorney form gives your agent the full authority to make all health care choices—however, you can tailor the document to limit what decisions that person can make. But no matter what, it’s important to choose an agent who knows your wishes and will act accordingly. Your spouse, parent, or a close family member is usually a good choice for an agent. Let this person know you’ve chosen him or her, and be sure to discuss your medical preferences. Trust me, this conversation with mom will be less awkward (and more important) then the talk about the “birds and the bees.”
2. Living Will
A Living Will (or Advance Health Care Directive) is a document that speaks for you when you can’t communicate for yourself. The document spells out the types of medical treatment and life-sustaining measures you want (or don’t want). A Healthcare Power of Attorney empowers your agent to act for you, while a Living Will gives the instructions on treatments you prefer or refuse. Although you can have one document without the other, a Living Will can provide guidance to your health care agent and ensure your wishes are carried out.
Common concerns addressed in a Living Will include life support (whether you want to be placed on mechanical breathing or have a feeding tube inserted), organ donation, and instructions for burial or cremation. You can also include resuscitation orders—or indicate that you choose not to be resuscitated. Once you’ve determined your medical preferences in a Living Will, your agent and your doctor must respect and carry out your wishes—if you want to be on life support, for example, it would be illegal for your agent to take you off it.
Yes, these situations are tough to think about—but they’re incredibly important. After all, this document will be your voice when you can’t communicate and will make sure you receive the care you want and deserve.
Essential Financial Documents
When you don’t own a 12-room mansion, valuable antique jewelry, or a private gallery of paintings, it’s hard to think about preparing legal documents to protect your assets. But even if you’re still in the one-bedroom apartment stage of life, it’s smart to prepare two important financial documents that protect you when you’re unable to make your own decisions: a Durable Power of Attorney, and your Will.
1. Durable Power of Attorney
A Durable Power of Attorney is a safeguard for your finances if you ever wind up seriously ill or injured. Similar to a Health Care Power of Attorney, this document appoints an agent to look after your finances, who can write checks, open or close bank accounts, pay bills, and even sell property.
This document kicks in when an accident or serious illness leaves you incapacitated, but only lasts as long as you’re unable to make your own financial decisions (i.e., when you recover, decisions are all yours to make again). It also allows you to make the choice to give your agent complete control of your finances, or limit their authority to only specified actions. For example, you could only allow your agent to pay your bills or withdraw money from a certain account—but keep him or her from touching your savings account while you’re in the hospital!
Finally, contrary to popular belief, a Will isn’t just for old, rich folks with children feuding over a hefty inheritance. Regardless of your income, having a Will in place will greatly benefit you and your loved ones. When you write your Will, you choose who will inherit your assets (from your savings account to your designer handbag collection) and you’ll designate a personal representative to oversee the distribution of your property.
Here’s why this is so important: If you don’t have a Will, a probate court will decide where your assets and personal belongings go. This process will be costly, time consuming, and stressful for your family. Even if your family’s all on great terms, it can still be a rough process, as they’ll have little control over what goes where. Something has happened to you, and you can bet they’ll be overwhelmed and grieving. Sorting out your possessions and bank accounts isn’t something they’ll want to do.
Also, if you have young children, this is especially essential—your Will is the document that will determine who takes guardianship of your kids.
While the decisions behind these documents might be tough, preparing them is not—there are plenty of websites, like Legalzoom.com and Nolo.com, that provide the forms and walk you through the drafting process step-by-step. If you’re still feeling unsure, you can contact an attorney to make sure you’re headed in the right direction.
Once you’ve prepared these documents, make sure to let your family or appointed agent know you’ve created them, and where you keep them. They won’t do you much good if no one knows they exist!
No matter how healthy you feel—take time to create these legal documents now. As difficult as it is to think about them, you’ll feel much better when you’re fully prepared, and you’ll be extremely grateful you did if the unthinkable happens.