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Four legal documents that can protect you and your family


Few things in life are as dull as legal paperwork. But, there are four documents that take on greater importance as we grow older. They`re documents that keep us in control of our lives and finances rather than having a doctor, lawyer or someone who`s not close to us make the decisions


A will should spell out clearly what you wish to have done with your assets. There`s a story about a 85-year-old man having a tearful reunion with his 87-year-old sister. They hadn`t spoken to each other for 22 years because they fought over who would get their mother`s desk. Neither one needed it, but each was sure that their mother had planned for it to belong to them.

Most of us already know how important a will is, but many Americans die without a will anyway. That means their state of residence will determine how their estate is distributed. The court appoints an administrator and assets are distributed based on state law requirements. (Life insurance and retirement plan assets that have beneficiaries are exceptions to this.) If you want more control over your assets, contact a lawyer to write a will and sign it in front of witnesses. How much you have isn`t important – what is important is not to leave someone else with the burden of making decisions. The cost will vary from $50 for a simple will to $500 or more for a more complicated one. Keep in mind that wills should be updated if a spouse dies or you move to another state.

Durable power of attorney

This legal document designates an “agent” to perform financial decisions, such as paying your bills or handling your investments. “Durable” means that the designation stays in effect even after you`re incapacitated. Some states allow for the power to become effective only at the time you become incapacitated. A trusted attorney can give you advice about setting up this document. Some states disallow gifts to the agent, so you may want to pick someone other than a family member to be an agent.

Living will

This lets you specify what you want doctors to do on your behalf if you`re unable to communicate your wishes. Many people think this document tells people that you don`t want to continue with life support if you`re in a terminal condition. But, in fact it`s a written directive specifying exactly what measures you want taken on your behalf, and in what circumstances. You can say whether you do or you don`t want to continue treatment. It puts you in control, not a hospital staff member.

Health care durable

power of attorney

If you should become impaired and can`t make decisions for yourself, this document names someone to make decisions about routine, non-terminal kinds of health care for you. The person designated is typically called a “proxy.” The proxy should understand your wishes about medical care, a decision to have surgery or a decision about long-term care. Some states allow the proxy to make life support decisions, too.

Make sure you tell at least two of your loved ones where these documents are kept. It`s not a good idea to keep them in a safety deposit box, since it might not be opened until months after your death.

The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has a manual called “Organizing your future: A guide to decisionmaking in your later years.” It describes the legal tools available to exercise control over major life decisions. It includes answers to questions on powers of attorney, wills and living wills, with sample forms and tips on finding qualified elderlaw attorneys. Ask for publication D13877. Send a check for $5 payable to Legal Counsel for the Elderly Inc., P.O. Box 96474, Dept. CAT 94, Washington, D.C., 20090-6474, or call (202) 434-2120.

Gary N. Garner is a personal financial advisor with American Express Financial Advisors in Jackson.


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