Attorney at Law

5 Essential End of Life Documents

Lia Kopin-Green
October 2, 2023
Last reviewed by
Joanna Smykowski
April 7, 2024

While no one ever truly plans to be sick or disabled, planning for incapacity and death is an uncomfortable yet necessary part of life. It is especially critical if you wish to spare loved ones the legal and emotional burdens of managing your affairs while dealing with the emotional struggle of grief and loss. In this informative legal guide, we will review some of the most important end-of-life documents that are required to honor your wishes and ease the transition for surviving loved ones.

1. Living Will

A living will, also known as an Advance Healthcare Directive, is a document that allows you to express your desires regarding medical treatment in the event that you are no longer able to communicate your own wishes due to incapacitation or severe illness. In its essence, this document will serve as a legally binding guide to ensure that your healthcare preferences are respected. It will generally address various medical scenarios and treatment options, such as organ donation, life-sustaining treatments and palliative care. In certain situations, a living will may also appoint a healthcare proxy or agent that will be responsible for making decisions on your behalf.

These documents should be reviewed regularly, especially after significant life events such as marriage, divorce, the birth of children or the development of a new medical condition. Since they must adhere to specific legal requirements in order to become binding, it is advised to consult with an attorney while drafting a living will.

2. Last Will and Testament

Your last will and testament and your living will are two distinct legal documents with different purposes. A last will and testament specifies how your assets and belongings should be distributed after your death, and also allows you to name an executor to handle your estate. This document provides clear instructions regarding who will inherit your money, property and possessions. A last will and testament allows you to name a guardian for them in your will, if you have minor children. Additionally, your will can address how any outstanding debts, taxes or liabilities will be settled in the event of your death. 

For a last will and testament to be legally valid in most jurisdictions, it must be witnessed and notarized. The witnesses should not be anyone named in the will to receive assets. 

3. Living Trust

In a living trust, you (the “grantor”) can designate a trustee to control your assets for the benefits that will receive your assets. After the initial living trust document is drafted, ownership of your assets will be transferred to the trust which owns your assets while you are still alive. Any assets can be placed in a living trust, such as valuable real estate and bank accounts. Upon your death, the assets in the trust will be distributed as outlined in the living trust document. 

Living trusts avoid probate, the lengthy court procedure for distributing a deceased person’s assets. In other words, a living trust allows you to give assets directly to your beneficiaries without the time-consuming and potentially costly process of probate court.

4. Durable Power of Attorney for Finances

A durable power of attorney for finances is a document that grants an individual or entity with the authority to act as your financial agent and generally manage your financial affairs if you become incapacitated. In this document, you will be required to specify the powers and authority you are giving your chosen agent. Common powers granted to a durable power of attorney for finances include handling bank accounts, managing real estate, paying debts, filing taxes and operating a business on your behalf. The “durable” nature of the document is especially important: it means that your agent remains effective even if you become mentally or physically incapacitated. 

It is critical to remember that you have the right to revoke or amend the durable power of attorney for finances at any time, as long as you are mentally competent to do so. If you need assistance in drafting this document or revoking it, reach out to an experienced attorney.

5. Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare

Similar to a durable financial power of attorney, a durable power of attorney for healthcare document appoints a trusted individual to make medical decisions on your behalf if you cannot do so. This power of attorney will be entrusted to make medical decisions based on your wishes, values and preferences in case you become severely injured or incapacitated. Your agent can access medical records, consult with doctors, provide informed consent, make choices about medications and procedures, interpret or stop life prolonging interventions, authorize admission to facilities, and more.

Choosing a durable power of attorney for healthcare can be a difficult decision, and it is crucial to appoint someone you trust to honor your wishes when the time comes. If you find it challenging to select a power of attorney, consider working with an attorney who can assist you in making the right decision.

Seeking Legal Support

Preparing for the inevitable can seem intimidating and morbid. However, ensuring your affairs are in order through essential end-of-life documents grants you and your family peace of mind.

Every individual's situation is unique, and it is important to work with a specialized attorney to build a personalized end-of-life plan tailored to your specific needs and wishes. Connect with a skilled elder law attorney today at Attorney At Law.

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