Picture this: Stan is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease and is living in a memory care facility. Physically and medically, Stan is in the best possible place, but his family is suffering terribly, and not just because of his illness.
Stan’s wife has been making decisions for him, but his children from a previous marriage are disagreeing and advocating a different course of action. The entire situation is creating discord and stress for everyone involved. And all this was needless. Had Stan made his wishes known legally before he was unable to make these decisions for himself, it would have taken the guess work out.
Just do it.
These conversations about the future may feel hard now, but it’s so important to have them before the need arises — not only for you, but for the family. Making sure everyone close to you knows what you want can help prevent or relieve conflict by defining what “quality of life” means to you and giving your family a plan to follow. It cleanly and simply removes any controversy family members might have if they disagree on medical care.
For these wishes to be legally enforceable they must be set out in official documents. Every state has different requirements for these, but here’s a general guide to what you need and why you need it.
A Living Will:
A living will states what medical care you do and do not want to receive if you become incapacitated (the legal word meaning you are unable to function normally) because of either a physical or mental illness. Among other things, it will specify whether you want to be kept alive or be kept on a life support system if you cannot make those decisions in the moment.
Medical Power of Attorney (sometimes known as a Healthcare Power of Attorney):
This document names someone to be your official representative in the event you cannot make or communicate decisions about any part of your health care.
You may need this temporarily (for example, if complications come up while you’re under anesthetic) or permanently if a longer-term health issue exists.
This person will make decisions on any medical issues, including medical treatments and hiring people to help in your care.
Durable Power of Attorney:
A durable power of attorney allows your named representative to carry out important personal tasks like accessing your bank accounts to pay bills, filing taxes on your behalf, making investment decisions and managing your property.
Who to Choose?
In some cases, the same person can be given both the medical power of attorney and the durable power of attorney. Maybe you know someone you absolutely trust to make all your decisions for you, but before you make that choice, there are some arguments in favor of separating the two.
In medical decisions, you not only want someone who will make the same choices you would make but also who deeply understands the religious and moral values you hold. This person will also need to be able to make the extremely difficult end-of-life decisions.
For the durable power of attorney, you will want someone who has enough financial expertise to handle the responsibilities. You’ll also want to make sure that person can carry out those duties despite any family friction that might arise involving financial decisions.
If you choose to separate those two roles, you’ll also want to make sure that both of your representatives can work well together to follow your wishes.
Making it official
You don’t need a lawyer to complete these documents, but they are legally binding so getting professional help is a good idea. Using an attorney is definitely advisable if there are family disagreements over your medical or financial care.
Most states provide the forms for a living will and powers of attorney online but be sure you find the forms that meet your state’s requirements.
The documents will have to be notarized and may require non-influenced witnesses (people who have no stake in your decision) as well. Many banks can do this for you.
No doubt, getting these documents in order is a bit of a daunting task. Think of it this way.
In Sweden, older people often do what they call “döstädning” which translates as death-cleaning. It doesn’t mean that death is near, but they systematically de-clutter their house so that when they do pass-on, their loved ones have minimal housekeeping duties. Think of it as Mari Kondo for future generations!
This whole process of defining your wishes – both medical and financial – is mental housekeeping. It will make the process easier for you and your family no matter if you need them in the near future or a long way down the road.