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Making Your Wishes Known

Recent events have put the debate over life support and end-of-life care on the front page. As a result, people of all ages have become aware of the importance of having their health-care wishes clearly defined. With a few simple documents, you can help ensure that your wishes will be carried out.

A Living Will

A living will is a legal document that provides directives for your medical care in the event that you become terminally ill and unable to communicate your wishes yourself. You choose the type of medical care you want under the circumstances you describe. For example, you could specify that you don’t want to be kept alive by “extraordinary” measures, and you might explain what you mean by “terminal.” It’s important to express your wishes in as much detail as possible so that medical personnel will be able to understand your intent clearly.

Durable Powers of Attorney for Health Care

A durable power of attorney for health care — sometimes called a health-care proxy — is a document that appoints someone to make medical decisions on your behalf if you aren’t able to do so. The word durable means that your agent’s authority will continue throughout your incapacity. Hospitals, doctors, and other health-care providers must follow your advisor’s decisions as if they were your own. Thus, you’ll want to name someone who understands what you want and is willing to act in your best interests should it become necessary.

In some states, a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care are two separate documents. In other states, they are rolled into one, called a medical directive. Without the document(s), your care may be extended beyond the point that you would have wished.

Durable Power of Attorney

In addition to a health-care proxy, you also may want to give someone a durable power of attorney allowing that individual to make financial and legal decisions for you. A durable power of attorney gives a specific person the authority to pay bills, deposit checks, make investment decisions, and carry out other financial duties. You can spell out in detail the powers you want the person to have.

Your professional advisors can help you prepare these documents. Once the documents are complete, keep the original copies in a location known to your family, and give copies to your agents, doctors, lawyer, and loved ones. Do not simply store the documents in a safe deposit box, as they may be too difficult to access when needed.

Discuss Your Decisions

In addition to expressing your wishes in writing, you should communicate with your doctors, care-givers, family, and other loved ones about your decisions. The more you discuss your wishes in advance, the more likely others will understand what you want. If your health-care views should change, be sure to let people know, and make any desired changes to your documents.

Plan To Preserve Your Business

Business owners have unique planning issues. If you own a business, you should plan ahead for the possibility that you could become incapacitated and no longer able to run the company. In addition to drafting a durable power of attorney and a durable power of attorney for health care, consider other planning strategies, such as insurance and/or a buy-sell agreement. Your financial professional can help you with business succession planning.

Review Your Estate Plan

Estate planning is an ongoing process. You should review your plan annually or when significant life events — such as marriage or divorce, the birth of a child, a move to a new state, or a change in net worth or income — occur. Revisions might be needed. Include your health-care documents in this review to ensure that they speak to your current wishes.

It’s a fact: An unexpected accident or illness could leave you unable to express your wishes. Proper planning, with the assistance of your professional advisors, will allow you to make the best choices for you and your loved ones.

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