When You Can’t Speak for Yourself

It’s not pleasant to think about the possibility of being unable to make your own medical or financial decisions. But taking the time to express your wishes in advance could help ensure that your health-care and financial affairs are handled as you wish and that your loved ones feel more confident about any decisions made on your behalf.



Here are three legal documents you might consider. The first two deal with health-care issues, and in some states may be combined into a single document called an advance health-care or medical directive. Requirements for all of these documents vary by state, so be sure to consult with an attorney who is familiar with the laws of your state.

Living will — Allows you to outline which medical procedures you would want to be used to prolong your life, typically in the event of a terminal illness or injury. It might also include instructions on pain management and other specific wishes. In some states, a living will may be called by a different name, such as health-care declaration or instructions for health care.

Durable power of attorney for health care (health-care proxy) — Enables you to appoint a representative to make medical decisions for you in the event you are unable to make them yourself. You can appoint anyone of legal age (usually 18 or older) and specify how much power your agent will have. The document should be HIPAA compliant so your representative can access your private medical information.

Durable power of attorney for finances (DPOA) — Enables you to authorize someone to act on your behalf in financial and legal matters. The person you designate as your agent could pay everyday expenses, watch over your investments, and file taxes, among other tasks. A DPOA may become effective immediately or when a triggering event occurs, such as a doctor certifying that you are physically or mentally incapacitated.

You can select the same person to serve as the agent for your health-care and financial powers of attorney, but you aren’t required to do so. Be sure to discuss your wishes with the person you select and let him or her know where you keep the documents. Consider giving copies to your representative, your doctor, and key family members, and review these documents regularly to make sure they continue to express your wishes. If you move to a different state, you may need to create new documents for that state. There may be costs associated with the creation and maintenance of these legal instruments.

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