If Your Parents Become Incapacitated

Make sure your parent have the right documents to spell out their desires if they can no longer make decisions for themselves.

Make sure your parents have these three documents: a living will, a durable power of attorney, and some form of health care proxy. These give them an opportunity to clarify their choices if they become incapacitated and to appoint someone they trust to make those choices for them when they no longer can. You should consider drawing up your own set of these documents at the same time.

Living wills spell out a person's wishes regarding the use of procedures that might be used to prolong life in the event of a terminal illness or accident. You can get state-specific documents for writing a living will on your own free of charge from The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization. Have a lawyer review the documents and make sure that the doctors agree to be guided by the document and that the hospitals will honor it. Most states allow doctors to follow the instructions in a living will, but they are not legally obligated to do so.

A health care proxy should accompany a living will. It grants the person you appoint the power to make health care decisions if you can't. This includes choosing or dismissing doctors, consenting to surgery, and representing your wishes regarding life-support options. All states recognize these proxies, but there may be some restrictions regarding withholding or withdrawing artificial nutrition and hydration or honoring the directive if the patient is pregnant.

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A durable power of attorney gives someone you choose the authority to make legal, financial, and medical decisions on your behalf. A limited power of attorney grants a designated "attorney-in-fact" the power to make only certain decisions on your behalf -- to pay bills from your checking account, for example. A springing durable power of attorney, recognized in many states, does not take effect until you are declared incompetent to make such decisions yourself.

Get a lawyer to draw up your durable power of attorney. Make separate ones for finances and health care. Sign several originals because some banks, hospitals, and brokerage houses want to have an original on file. You should also spread copies of the document around, making sure that family members, doctors, and financial advisers are aware of what it says. Anyone who lives in more than one state-wintering in Florida, for instance, and summering in Maine-should make sure to have powers of attorney that conform to both states' laws. Elderly people who travel should take a copy with them.

What if you change your mind? A durable power of attorney can be revoked at any time as long as you are mentally competent. Simply put the revocation in writing, have it witnessed and notarized, and give copies to all parties concerned.