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Legal Documents You Need Now!

En español | People don't want to think that an accident or illness would prevent them from saying what they want — or don't want — when it comes to their future medical care. We tell ourselves: I have plenty of time to take care of those things later … if I get sick … when I'm older.

But things do happen in our lives that are out of our control. Your family and friends need to know how you want them to handle situations if you're too ill to tell them. If they're left guessing, a conversation can quickly disintegrate into a confrontation. The fallout can result in guilt, uncertainty and arguments. Take these steps to ensure this doesn't happen if such a situation should arise:

1. Know what you need. You'll need to draw up three documents, often referred to as advance directives. 

  • A living will alerts medical professionals and your family to the treatments you want to receive or refuse, and under what conditions. This will only go into effect if you meet specific medical criteria and are unable to make decisions.
  • A health care power of attorney delegates a spouse, trusted family member or friend to make health care decisions for you if you are unable to do so. This document is also referred to as a health care proxy, appointment of a health care agent or durable power of attorney for health care. Be aware that a regular durable power of attorney only covers financial matters.
  • A letter of instruction outlines any special requests you'd like to be carried out, such as plans for a funeral and names of people to contact. It also should include important phone numbers, such as your employer and your insurance agent or broker. Some people also include a list of meaningful possessions they'd like to give to certain loved ones. This is not a substitute for a will, but it helps clarify your intentions and feelings.

2.  Put it in writing. A living will and power of attorney are legal documents, but you can draw them up yourself. A letter of instruction is not technically a legal document. Many people opt to hire an attorney. You may want one, so they can apprise you of any relevant changes in the law that might affect your document. Most eldercare lawyers charge fixed rates, so you should be able to find one within your budget.

Want to write your living will yourself? Download a copy of your state's living will. Every state has different rules concerning living wills, so be sure to download and complete the one recognized by your state. You can also find a sample living will at Aging With Dignity that is now legal in 40 states. AARP offers suggestions on estate planning, as well as an easy-to-follow work sheet to help you organize documents.

3.  Sit down with your family, especially the one who you've designated as a health care agent, and explain what you've decided. Give them a copy of your documents and have your doctor put one in your permanent medical record. 

4.  Review your papers every few years. Keep them in a safe, easily accessible place such as a secure file cabinet. If your family situation changes — through the arrival of grandchildren, for example, or a divorce — you may want to make changes.

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