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No one likes to think that an illness or a sudden death would prevent your ability to express your end-of-life wishes. But things happen in life that are out of our control, and when loved ones are left guessing, conversations can quickly lead to arguments – and the resulting decisions may not be in line with your true wishes. There are several key legal documents that can help avoid confusion and ensure that your wishes are carried out exactly as you desire. As with all aspects of long term care planning, the best time to think about – and create – these documents is before you need them. You may want to speak with an estate-planning or elder-law attorney about the proper legal documents you should have on hand should you or a loved one become incapacitated or incompetent. Consider the following list of legal documents – courtesy of the National Institute on Aging – as a good place to start in your document planning: 

  • Will: Identifies how a person’s assets will be divided and distributed upon death and may identify guardians for minors and trusts along with detail burial wishes. 
  • Living will: Identifies a person’s wishes about medical treatment toward the end of his or her life. 
  • Durable power of attorney (POA) for health care: Allows the person appointed (aka the agent or proxy) to make decisions for another because of conditions such as dementia. These decisions can include continuation of life support, removal from a hospital, and organ donation. 
  • Do-not-resuscitate (DNR) order: Tells medical staff not to initiate CPR or other lifesaving measures if a patient’s breathing stops. 
  • Durable power of attorney (POA) for finances: Empowers an individual to make money decisions on behalf of another. 
  • Beneficiary designations: Determines who receives the assets of one’s individual retirement accounts, life insurance policies, and workplace retirement plans such as 401(k)s.

The lack of even one of these documents can increase stress for your loved ones. For example, dying without a will (aka intestate) leaves decisions about distribution of assets up to a state’s laws. Without a health-care power of attorney or living will in place, family members must determine or speculate about what the person wanted.

Get Started Today – and Keep It Updated Tomorrow  Sit down with your family – particularly those who will be responsible for your care – and share your decisions. Provide them with a copy of your key documents, and ask your primary care provider to keep the relevant documents in your medical record. Because situations and desires may change as time progresses (e.g. the birth of grandchildren), be sure to review your documents on an annual basis to ensure that your current wishes are accurately represented and your loved ones are fully protected.