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End-of-Life Issues: Wills/Living Wills (Advance Directives)

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A will is a legal document that explains what you'd like done with your belongings after you die. Although thinking about your will can be upsetting and stressful, it's important to have one if you want to control what happens to your money and property after your death. If you don't have a will, your property will be distributed according to the probate laws of your state. Probate is the legal process of distributing the property owned by someone who has died to heirs after the death.

You can write your own will, but it's more likely that it will hold up to any legal challenges if the will is prepared by an attorney. A will does have to be signed by adult witnesses who don't gain by your death and are not named as a beneficiary, executor, or trustee in your will. You have to sign and date your will in the presence of the witnesses.

Many attorneys recommend including information on your Internet accounts in your will. If you receive any account statements through email, your family and loved ones may not know about them unless they can access your email account. For each email account, list the service provider, log-in name, and password.

After you've written your will, keep a copy for yourself and give a copy to your attorney to keep. Make sure to review your will about every 2 years or so to make sure it still reflects your situation and intentions. If you want to change your will, have your attorney make the changes so they are done in accordance with your state's laws. You can also write a completely new will if you'd like.

A will is just one way people can distribute their assets after they die. Establishing a trust is another option. A trust is an agreement under which money or other assets are held and managed by one person for the benefit of another. Some of the benefits of a trust include the ability to create financial safeguards for family members and postponing taxes. Still, there are several types of trusts and creating them can be fairly complex. Trusts must follow your state's laws and may affect your tax situation. If you think you might like to create a trust, talk to an attorney about the pros and cons. It's also a good idea to have an attorney help you draw up your trust to make sure it does what you'd like it to do.

A living will tells your loved ones and your healthcare team what kind of care you do and don't want if you can't make your own decisions. A living will may also be called "advance directives." Thinking about end-of-life issues such as a living will can be very stressful and scary. That's normal. Still, a living will is a way for you to make sure that what you'd like to have happen as far as healthcare does happen.

A living will usually covers things such as artificial feeding, using a respirator, organ donation, and whether or not you want cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if your heart stops. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization has living will forms available by state. Living will forms usually don't have a space to name someone who is responsible for making your medical decisions if you can't make them. This is what giving someone power of attorney for your healthcare does.

As with your will, your living will can be changed at any time. It's a good idea to review it every so often to make sure it still reflects your wishes. If you decide to change your living will, the changes must be made, signed, and notarized according to the laws of your state. Make sure you tell your doctors and family members that you have changed your living will.

It's a good idea to talk to your family members and other loved ones about both your will and your living will. The discussion may be hard, but it will help your family members understand your wishes and make sure they're carried out.

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