No matter your belief structure, or whether you’re reluctant to admit your own mortality, it’s a fact that none of us will live forever. And since no one knows if their demise will happen quickly or be proceeded by a lengthy illness, it’s good to be as prepared as possible for your care and for the disposition of your estate.
To make sure you are taken care of at the end of your life the way you want to be taken care of, your wishes need to be formally stated and there are several documents that will help:
- Healthcare Power of Attorney also known as the Healthcare Proxy. If you can’t make medical decisions for yourself you want a person who will follow your wishes. The Healthcare Power of Attorney allows you to designate that person. It avoids confusion about who you want to be in charge.
- A Living Will dictates what you want done if you are terminally ill, permanently unconscious, or in a vegetative state or some other end-stage condition. This document tells everyone if you want the removal of life support or if you want heroic measures to keep you alive as long as possible.
- A similar document is POLST. Physician Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment forms are a relatively new way for you to express your end of life wishes. You fill it out, the doctor signs it, and it becomes part of your permanent medical record. It’s a standing order that medical professionals are bound to follow.
- Do Not Resuscitate/Do Not Intubate orders should be part of your advance planning. DNR/DNI orders tell medical personnel NOT to perform CPR or other procedures to revive a person if their heart or breathing stops. WITHOUT a DNR, medical personnel will use aggressive measures to bring you back. There are several levels of DNR that vary from state to state and facility to facility, so it’s a good idea to check the specifics where you live.
- The Healthcare Designation form lists the people authorized to receive medical information from your healthcare providers. It can eliminate conflict among family members at a time when emotions run high.
- A Durable Power of Attorney appoints someone who will make sure your bills get paid and other financial matters handled if you are incapacitated. Some banks require their own forms and want the forms updated regularly.
- Diminishing Capacity Letter. This gives permission to your professional relationships, such as investment advisors, bankers, insurance agents, etc., to call designated individuals such as your powers of attorney or a family member, if they noticed some diminishment in your physical, cognitive, mental or psychological capacity.
- Organ Donor Designation. It used to be that checking the donor box on your driver license was enough. Not anymore. Your license may not end up at the hospital with you in an emergency and your family or Healthcare Power of Attorney has the potential to override your wishes.
Three things to keep in mind about your healthcare documents:
- They need to be current. Laws change and that can affect your decisions, so review the documents at least every four years.
- Documents should be able to cross state lines. Some healthcare documents refer to specific statutes in the state of residence, which could limit the type of care you receive if you travel to another state or internationally.
- And, the documents need to be easy to understand. Often healthcare documents are awkwardly written or full of legal language. They may be legally correct, but if a healthcare professional can’t fully understand what the documents allow, your treatment may not be as comprehensive as you’d like.
What happens after your death? There are documents that will make distribution of your estate easier on your heirs. Just like the healthcare documents, having these estate documents will assure that your assets are handled the way you want them handled.
- A Will is the very beginning of estate planning. Even if it’s an “I Love You” will that leaves everything to your spouse, it specifies an executor to carry out your wishes and describes how you want the assets distributed.
- A Trust names a trustee to do what the executor of a will would do. A trust is often used for larger estates, but there may be tax benefits of having a trust. In addition, a trust keeps the details of your estate settlement private. A will is filed with the court. That makes it a public document and therefore can be seen by anyone.
- Digital Assets Memorandum. This is usually in a Will document. You specify who you want to have access to your digital assets and accounts like social media and email. Under the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act, “Digital Assets follow according to the will, but they have to be mentioned in the will.”
- A Personal Property Memorandum specifically lists which of your possessions and personal property go to which heirs. It can help avoid fights and disputes among family members after you’re gone.
Having an Asset Inventory will make the job of your executor or trustee much easier. The inventory is a list of all your estate documents, financial accounts, credit cards, property, mortgages—in other words, everything your executor or trustee will need to handle—along with account numbers, contact information, telephone numbers, email addresses, etc.
No one likes to think about the end of their time. But some advance planning can make that time easier for you and the ones you leave behind.