4 Legal Documents Everyone Needs on Hand

COVID-19 has forced a lot of people to think about hard life-and-death decisions. Filling these documents out now will make sure you and your loved ones are on the same page, literally.

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(Image credit: Pali Rao)

A family emergency involving a loved one, including a serious illness, can happen without warning. Lining up these legal documents in advance—and keeping them in a safe but accessible place—will save you precious time and unnecessary hassle.

Durable power of attorney. This document, which generally goes into effect immediately, gives you and your spouse (or partner) the authority to manage each other’s finances if one of you becomes incapacitated. Adult children or a trusted friend can also hold your power of attorney. You can order the form from an online legal site, such as Nolo.com (opens in new tab), for about $60. But the better route is to use an estate-planning lawyer. A lawyer will make sure the form conforms to state law and is properly executed.

Some banks and brokerage firms use their own form, or they may not honor a power of attorney unless certain conditions are met. Make sure you and your “attorney in fact” complete the required paperwork, and ask the institution to keep a copy on file.

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Health care proxy. Sometimes referred to as a power of attorney for health care or an advance directive for health care, this document gives you and your spouse the right to make medical decisions for each other—or you can give other family members the right 
to make medical decisions for each of you. The proxy can include consenting to surgery or authorizing life support.

Becoming the health care proxy means discussing how you and your spouse define an acceptable quality of life. For example, would you agree to a feeding tube if it would prolong life? Would religious beliefs or personal values affect the choice of treatment? Although the health care power of attorney gives you legal authority to make medical decisions for your spouse, doctors may balk at following your instructions if a family member objects. To avoid that scenario, you and your spouse should brief other family members about the decisions you’ve made.

Medical information release. This form gives doctors permission to share your spouse’s medical records with you. Because there isn’t a standardized medical release form, you and your spouse should get one from your doctors or hospital.

Living will. This document lets you and your spouse provide written guidance on what kind of treatment each of you wants—or doesn’t want—during a terminal illness.

“Five Wishes,” a form that serves as both a health care power of attorney and a living will, is accepted in 44 states and the District of Columbia. For more information and to download or order a form ($5), visit www.fivewishes.org (opens in new tab). If this form doesn’t meet the requirements in your state, the American Bar Association offers free resources that will help you with this task, including a generic form that’s accepted in most states. Go to www.americanbar.org (opens in new tab) and search for “Giving Someone Power of Attorney for Your Health Care.” You can find a state-specific living will form at www.caringinfo.org (opens in new tab).

Sandra Block
Senior Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Block joined Kiplinger in June 2012 from USA Today, where she was a reporter and personal finance columnist for more than 15 years. Prior to that, she worked for the Akron Beacon-Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. In 1993, she was a Knight-Bagehot fellow in economics and business journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She has a BA in communications from Bethany College in Bethany, W.Va.