While few of us want to think about what will happen when our parents pass away, it’s essential for older adults to make specific arrangements for what should be done, in the event that they become incapacitated by illness or pass away. This is for the whole family’s benefit, since spelling out their wishes ahead of time will guide other family members through difficult decision-making processes, while hopefully preventing conflicts from arising. To that end, there are three essential legal documents that will allow aging parents to establish their preferences before a crisis occurs:
- A durable power of attorney: When signed, witnessed, and notarized, this document allows your parents to give another person (or persons) the legal authority to make financial and healthcare decisions on their behalf, in the event that they aren’t able to make decisions on their own. Whether your parents prefer to appoint one agent for financial decisions and another for health care decisions, or one person to handle both, is up to them. Usually, a durable power of attorney goes into effect as soon as it is signed but it’s a good idea to update it every two or three years.
- A written will: This document, which is usually prepared by an attorney, specifies how your parents want their property and assets to be divided and distributed after death. In the will, your parents will name an executor who will pay debts and taxes out of their estate and assure that his instructions are carried out. In the absence of a will, the state will decide how the property and assets will be divided, which can be a contentious process.
- A living will: Also known as an “advanced directive,” a living will establishes a legal record of what a person wants to happen when he is facing a terminal condition and can’t speak for himself. Specifically, it indicates whether he would want to accept or refuse artificial life-sustaining treatments such as being hooked up to a respirator or feeding or hydration tube, and it authorizes a designated person to speak on your parent’s behalf. This document complements a health care proxy; to find out more about this form, click here.
As a first step, discuss these important legal issues with your parents and find out if they’ve already made arrangements for any of these documents. If your parents don’t have a trusted attorney who can handle estate planning and other legal issues, try to help them find one. It’s a good idea to ask friends, colleagues, or acquaintances whose judgment you trust for recommendations, then to interview attorneys together until you both feel ready to choose one with whom you’re comfortable. Keep in mind that each state has its own correct legal format for these documents so it’s essential to make sure your parents have the correct ones for New York State.