Outside the Box: Why you need a will (and the other forms to fill out before you die)

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It’s no fun to accept the inevitability of death. At least you can look forward to escaping all the irritants of everyday life, from paying bills to making stressful decisions under duress.

There’s just one problem: If you’re not around to handle these dreaded tasks, your loved ones (or others) might get stuck with them.

Let’s say you take the easy way out and don’t specify your wishes if you become incapacitated and don’t plan your funeral arrangements. You place the burden on others whether you realize it or not. And they may not make ideal choices on your behalf.

You may think, “I’ll be dead or near-dead. Who cares?”

Actually, you care—more than you know.

Beyond drafting a will (or updating the one you haven’t looked at in decades), round out your estate plan by pondering a series of grim questions:

• To what extent do I want to be kept alive if I’m incapacitated?

• Whom do I trust to make financial decisions if I’m unable to?

• What happens to my remains?

Answering these questions now guides your caregivers, medical providers, family and friends later to render tough judgments that they’d otherwise make based on their own biases or guesses.

“The two big things are the health care power of attorney and the financial power of attorney,” said Jennifer VanderVeen, an elder law attorney in South Bend, Ind. The former lets you designate someone to make medical decisions and the latter authorizes a trusted individual to manage your finances if you cannot.

“Then you need to make sure the people you’ve named know your wishes,” she added. “A lot of people don’t communicate their wishes to their named agents.”

Read: Stop procrastinating and get an estate plan — here’s how to get started

Snowbirds may need to complete two separate sets of power of attorney forms to meet each state’s signature requirements. States often define who can serve as a witness, the number of witnesses and whether the documents must be notarized.

After you’ve properly executed these forms, you can’t just forget about them. Eventually, you’ll want to repeat the process.

“Once individuals have a power of attorney [POA] in place, they should update it every few years (five at least) because many banks and other financial institutions impose arbitrary rules about how old a POA is and may not recognize a very old one,” said Teresa Nuccio, an estate planning attorney at Harrison & Held, a Chicago-based law firm.

Younger adults should weigh in on their end-of-life wishes, even if such a scenario seems unthinkable. High-profile cases such as Terri Schiavo, Nancy Cruzan and Karen Ann Quinlan highlight the importance of addressing these issues at any age.

“As soon as my children turned 18, they signed their two POAs and a HIPAA,” Nuccio said. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) sets privacy rules to protect a patient’s health information. Signing a HIPAA release form authorizes providers to share your health information with loved ones so that they can gain access to your treatment regimen and advocate on your behalf.

While you can obtain many of these forms at a senior center, state agency, medical facility or legal aid organization and complete them on your own (as long as you meet state requirements for witnesses and a notary), hiring an attorney helps. Laws vary by state along with the terminology, especially when it comes to directives that stipulate your preferences for medical care if you cannot decide for yourself due to coma, terminal illness or other factors.

“There’s a ton of advance directives forms out there,” VanderVeen said. “Some are legally binding. Others are not. You have to look at your state’s laws and how they apply.”

If you’re confronting the possibility of a life-limiting medical condition such as late-stage cancer or dementia, completing an additional form—a POLST—creates standing orders for your care. The POLST (Provider Orders for Life Sustaining Treatment), known as POST (Physician Orders for Scope of Treatment) or other terms in some states, adds a layer of clarity that a living will may lack.

“It becomes a medical order that your doctor signs that provides a certain specificity that living wills don’t provide,” VanderVeen said. To learn your state’s requirements, see Polst.org.