When starting your estate plan, you want to make sure that you have a last will and testament so your family knows where your assets will go when you die. However, equally as important as determining where your money and property will go is telling your family members and loved ones what your wishes are if you are sick and need medical care.
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It can be hard to sit and think about what kind of health care you want at the end of your life. Nobody wants or expects to get diagnosed with a terminal illness or end up in a nursing home, but it is important to prepare if it does happen. As you make your way through your end-of-life planning, take the time to think through the different possibilities to ensure you maintain the quality of life you desire, and help your family in the decision-making process.
End of Life Medical Documents
Planning for the end of your life involves more than one document. Your end-of-life documents, collectively, are typically called “advance directives.” Advance directives are legal documents that allow you to have input into your end-of-life care. Below are examples of documents that you may want to create to assist in your end-of-life planning.
Power of Attorney for Health Care
A durable power of attorney for health care (sometimes called a medical power of attorney) allows you to name a health care proxy (or health care agent) to act on your behalf if you become incapacitated. A general power of attorney allows you to name a proxy to act on your behalf in certain situations; however, the durable power of attorney continues to stay active when you cannot act for yourself.
The durable power of attorney typically does not come into effect until one or more doctors agree that you are incapacitated and require assistance. Who you name as your health care proxy will have the authority to be your decision-maker for medical decisions. Often people will name a family member or a loved one as their health care proxy, but it doesn’t have to be. All that matters is you name someone you trust and know will act in your best interest. It is essential to consult your state laws to ensure you correctly identify your health care proxy and that the durable power of attorney will be effective when needed.
The living will is a document allowing you to instruct your health care proxy and providers of medical treatments that you may or may not want. Like the durable power of attorney, this document only comes into effect when one or more doctors agree that you have a medical condition specified in your state’s laws. The document only becomes active once you can no longer make medical decisions on your own behalf.
The living will is where you should list most of your end-of-life wishes. Some of the decisions typically made in a living will are whether to continue life-sustaining treatments if you are suffering from a serious illness, what treatments you would like to have while you are on life-support, or whether to receive palliative care to relieve pain and suffering when in hospice care.
The living will is essential to advance care planning because it is the best way for caregivers, family members, and others to know how to make the healthcare decisions you would have wanted.
Do Not Resuscitate Order
A do not resuscitate or “DNR” is typically not considered an advance directive. Still, it can act as a medical order and notify the health care professionals taking care of you that you do not want cardiopulmonary resuscitation (“CPR”) if you are in an assisted-living facility or hospice care. The DNR form can be provided by a general practitioner or the facility where you receive care.
Physicians’ Order for Life-Sustaining Treatment
In some states, you can fill out a POLST form, which gives your treatment team a guide to what treatments you would or would not like to receive. This can be helpful if you are in end-of-life planning and there you have moral or religious reasons behind whether you would or wouldn’t want to receive a specific treatment. If you want to fill out a POLST form, reach out to your general practitioner, and they will be able to assist you in making your end-of-life decisions.
End-of-Life Financial Planning
Although there is much to think about when trying to piece together what medical decisions you would like to make at the end of your life, the financial aspect of your end-of-life planning is equally important. Estate planning is where you can name beneficiaries for your estate and help make sure your assets go where you want them to.
Last Will and Testament
The last will and testament is often the first legal document people make when starting their estate planning. Your will names a personal representative to act on your behalf in the probate process. If you don’t have a will when you die, there is no way to know how exactly you want your estate divided. Your estate is then subject to the intestate succession laws of your state. Having a will is the first step in ensuring you have peace of mind when it comes to your finances.
A will can be as simple or as complex as you would like to make it. However, you may want to do more than only make a simple will. You may also consider writing a letter of instruction where you direct your personal representative to whether you would like cremation or burial following your death or even how to access your various social media accounts.
As with any other legal document, it is important to consult your state laws when it comes to drafting a will. Many states have different requirements for ensuring a will is legal. The laws can vary from making sure two non-interested parties witness a will or simply whether you signed your will properly. However, most states do require that you are over the age of eighteen and of sound mind.
One of the most overlooked areas of end-of-life financial planning is filling out beneficiary designations for bank accounts, retirement accounts, or life insurance policies. When you create one of these accounts, they often ask you to name a beneficiary. However, if your life situation has changed and you are no longer associated with the person you previously named, they may be entitled to inherit those funds if you never changed them.
Creating Your Own End-of-Life Plan
In the end, whether you have thought through every scenario possible in your end-of-life plan is less important than having a plan in place at all. During this time, your loved ones will be going through one of the most emotional times in their lives, and it is only made worse by not knowing what you would have wanted. Understanding your financial and health care wishes will give them peace of mind when they honor your wishes. If you are ready to start your end-of-life care planning, use FindLaw’s Do-It-Yourself Last Will and Testament or Advance Directive Forms to get started.