Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and think about those hard things that you know you should get around to but haven’t quite made time for? You know, reevaluating your homeowners’ policy? Cleaning out the tool shelf in the basement? Having end-of-life paperwork in place?
I can’t help you with the first two (these might also be things that keep ME awake at night), but the last one is actually easier than you probably realize. There are really just four things you need to have in place to make the end of your life easier for everyone involved, whether you should die suddenly, or as is much more common, over a period of time with diminishing capacity.
These four things are a health care directive, power of attorney for health care, durable power of attorney, and a will. The health care directive and power of attorney for health care can be combined into one document, so you’re talking about just needing THREE documents. Here they are:
Health Care Directive & Power of Attorney for Health Care
This is the document that covers what you wish to have happen in the event that you can no longer make medical decisions or have entered a vegetative state. It goes into detail about specific procedures and conditions and allows you to specify different degrees of treatment you may wish to have. The combined document also allows you to assign a Health Care Agent, who is someone you trust to carry out your wishes as you’ve outlined in the Health Care Directive. In my personal experience, having paperwork to prove his Health Care Agent status greatly improved my husband’s access to his mother’s doctors and medical information during a recent emergency. For Washington State residents, the most straightforward, easy-to-use, and universally accepted form can be found here. You should have this notarized.
Durable Power of Attorney
This document can be useful long before you are faced with a crisis. It is used to give another person the ability to make financial decisions and sign legal documents on your behalf. The Durable Power of Attorney can range in scope (you can decide how much responsibility to confer and about what types of things) and is in force until you die. The important distinction between a Power of Attorney and a Durable Power of Attorney is that the former is only in place until you become mentally incapacitated, while the latter stays in force until your death. These can be found online and should also be notarized.
This is the document that specifies how your assets will be distributed upon your death, and assigns the person or people to take care of seeing that your final instructions are carried out. (In addition to managing other details, the executor of your will takes over Power of Attorney duties after your death.) While not required, it is generally recommend that you have a lawyer help with this document. Even people who claim they “don’t own anything” are surprised when they start itemizing their belongings. A will can be as general or specific as you wish; if there are particular items you want to have go to particular people, this is the place to do that. Basically, have a lawyer do this one!
In short, these are pretty straightforward documents. The amount of time it takes to actually create and notarize these documents is far less than the amount of time you’ve already spent lying awake at night worrying about them! Make this the year you get them done.