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4 Key End-of-Life Documents to Get in Order

You will need legal authority to take charge of Mom or Dad's affairs.

In 2006, Holly Deni's 99-year-old aunt was hospitalized after she was found unconscious in her Manhattan apartment. Deni's aunt, who had no children, had a will but had never given anyone power of attorney for her finances or health care. As a result, Deni couldn't manage her aunt's bills, retrieve personal items from her apartment or move her to a long-term-care facility near Deni's home in New Jersey. It took Deni six months to become her aunt's legal guardian, at a cost of $15,000.

To avoid a similar crisis in your family, be sure your parent has the following documents.

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Durable power of attorney. This document, which generally goes into effect immediately, gives you the authority to manage your parent's finances if he or she becomes incapacitated or simply wants your help. Your parent can order the form from an online legal site, such as LegalZoom.com, for about $35. But the better route is to use an estate-planning lawyer, says Deni, who heads the ElderLife division of Locker Financial Services, in Little Falls, N.J. Not only can a lawyer make sure the form conforms to state law and is properly executed, but if family members later challenge your authority, the lawyer can also testify that your parent was of sound mind when signing it, Deni says.

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Some banks and brokerage firms won't honor a power of attorney unless certain conditions are met. Others have their own forms. Make sure your parent completes the required paperwork, and ask the institution to keep a copy on file. Your parent should keep power-of-attorney documents in a safe but accessible place. Keep your own copy, along with copies of other documents, such as your parent's will and insurance policies, in an easy-to-access place as well.

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Health care proxy. Sometimes referred to as a power of attorney for health care, this document gives you the right to make medical decisions on your parent's behalf if he or she cannot. The power can include consenting to surgery or authorizing life support.

Becoming the health care proxy means discussing how your parent defines an acceptable quality of life, says Carolyn McClanahan, a physician and certified financial planner for Life Planning Partners, in Jacksonville, Fla. For example, would your parent agree to a feeding tube if it would prolong life? Would religious beliefs or personal values affect the choice of treatment?

The American Bar Association offers free resources that can help with this sobering task. Go to www.americanbar.org and search for "Giving Someone Power of Attorney for Your Health Care." For state-specific forms, go to www.caringinfo.org.

Although the health care power of attorney gives you legal authority to make medical decisions for your parent, doctors may balk at following your instructions if a family member objects, McClanahan says. To avoid that scenario, ask your parent to brief other family members upfront about the medical decisions you've discussed.

As with the power of attorney, the health care proxy should be easily accessible in an emergency. Deni recommends having your parent put a copy in a clear plastic envelope and attaching it to the refrigerator.

Medical-information release. This form gives your parent's doctors permission to share medical records with you. Your parent's doctor and hospital may have their own versions. Because there isn't a standardized medical release form, Deni says, ask your parent to get one from his or her primary-care physician and any specialists. The form, which can also be kept in the plastic envelope, should be updated annually.

Living will. This document lets your parent provide written guidance on what kind of treatment your parent wants—or doesn't want—during a terminal illness. You can find a state-specific living-will form at www.caringinfo.org.

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