On a good day, I wonder if my family hears what I say or if all they hear is "blah, blah, blah!" However, when I talk about what I want to happen if I'm in an accident, hospitalized, or die, I'm SURE some of my family completely block my words. That's why I think it's so important that I write down how I want my health and my property handled if I can't talk for myself.
Luckily, we have legal documents that we can use to communicate our wishes. Writing down what's important to us helps:
- communicate exactly what we want, and
- reminds people of our wishes in stressful times.
It means that difficult decisions do not have to be introduced and made when we're stressed. We can think through these decisions before events occur and likely end up with better decisions. It's challenging to make good decisions during emotional times.
Two commonly used legal documents are power of attorney – of property and of health care. A durable power of attorney for property allows you to designate another person to handle and make decisions about your finances including investments, bank accounts, property, and any other money management tasks like paying bills. With a power of attorney for property, you can set boundaries for how specific or broad it is. Choose this individual or agent very carefully. Think about someone you can trust implicitly with your money and is knowledgeable about finances.
When you establish a power of attorney for yourself, then you get to choose who this person is rather than needing a court-appointed attorney, assuming the need arises. You can change or cancel power of attorney powers if you want to in the future.
You can also choose to have a power of attorney for health care. The person who you designate as your power of attorney can make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so. We often think only someone elderly needs this kind of document, but accidents can happen to anyone. Young people can be unable to make a decision due to pain medication just as older people can be unable to speak for themselves in this situation.
Another health-related, legal document to be aware of is the Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR)/Practitioner Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment (POLST) Form. This document expands upon the DNR that you may have heard of before. As stated on the Illinois POLST form, you complete this form given your current state of health, and allows you to state your wishes about CPR, other medical interventions, and medically administered food (including feeding tubes) given different situations. You may be asked if you'd like to sign this document if you need surgery or are admitted to a hospital.
To see examples of health care advance directives go to the Illinois Department of Public Health website.
This discussion is not legal advice. I strongly encourage people to talk to a lawyer. Lawyers ask questions, consider people's complete situation, and can then recommend the most suitable documents to meet needs. Another legal document to ask about is a will. A will states who will receive your property if you die. In addition, you can name who you'd like to be the guardian of your children.
These conversations can be very challenging. Talking about your wishes and writing them down can help reduce the likelihood of loved ones feeling burdened or guilty and reduce family conflict. To help you start your planning, you can download a free Action Plan from University of Illinois Extension.
Originally posted August 2017; updated August 2023.
Kathy Sweedler and Sasha Grabenstetter discuss the advance directive, Power of Attorney! Learn more about the different types of powers of attorney, the risks associated, resources from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as well as research from personal finance colleagues. Listen to I've Got the Power, a Family Financial Feuds podcast.
Kathy Sweedler provides personal finance online education with Illinois Extension. Kathy’s emphasis is to encourage people to be confident in their financial decisions, and to help them explore new ways of thinking about and managing money. When Kathy is not engaged in Extension work, she is often traveling and piecing together family genealogy. Genealogy is a puzzle, not that different from managing money!
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