The only thing that is certain is uncertainty. If a doctor advises you to get your affairs in order, you know that's not good news. However, it shouldn't take a bad diagnosis for you to get your financial and legal affairs in order. Such preparation makes life easier for your survivors at a difficult time.
If you don't have a will, have one drawn up as soon as possible. If you do have a will but prepared it quite some time ago, review it to make sure the named executor and beneficiaries are still those you want handling your affairs and inheriting your estate. If you moved, divorced or a named executor or beneficiary has died, you should update your will. When choosing an executor, ask the person beforehand if she is willing to manage your estate.
If your important papers are scattered all over your house, collect them and put them together in one place. This includes financial documents, any deeds, mortgages, insurance policies, recent income taxes and personal identification information such as your Social Security card and passport. You can place these documents in your safe deposit box, but make copies so the information is readily available. Tell your executor or a close family member or friend where these documents are. Your executor should know the location of your original will. Don't put your will in the safe deposit box. Once you are gone -- unless you hold the safe deposit account jointly -- a court order is necessary to open it.
Since so much of life is now conducted online, make a list of your passwords, email addresses and user names for important accounts. That's especially important if you pay most of your bills online or have your own website.
If you have not already done so, create a living will, which outlines what sort of medical treatment you desire if you can no longer give consent. Also known as an advanced care directive, such a document aids family members in making healthcare decisions for you. Give your physician written permission to discuss your health status with designated family members or friends.
Power of Attorney
Give a trusted relative, friend or legal professional a durable power of attorney to manage your affairs if you become incapacitated. The named individual can pay your bills from your accounts and otherwise manage your personal or business finances. You should also give a trusted person a durable power of attorney for healthcare or a healthcare proxy, which is the right to make certain healthcare choices for you if you can no longer do so. The individual to whom you give a durable power of attorney for healthcare doesn't have to be the same individual who has a DPOA to manage your financial affairs. You cannot give healthcare providers, such as your family doctor, a durable power of attorney for healthcare because the individual with your healthcare DPOA might have to make the decision to discontinue your life support. State laws vary on healthcare proxies, so ask your doctor or attorney about the laws in your state.
Don't Forget the Pets
If you have pets, make arrangements for their welfare if something happens to you. If you don't have a spouse or significant other who will care for them, ask a animal-loving friend or relative to take them. You should also find someone who can serve as an emergency caretaker in case you are hospitalized or otherwise unable to care for your animals. You can provide for your pets in your will by giving specific instructions to your executor, designating funds for their care and including the caregiver's name. If your pets are very old or require exceptional levels of care due to their physical condition, you might want to make arrangements with your veterinarian to have them humanely euthanized after your death or if you become incapacitated.
- National Institute on Aging: Getting Your Affairs in Order
- WebMD: Putting Affairs in Order Before Death
- New York State Office of the State Comptroller: Getting Your Affairs In Order and A Guide for Your Survivors
- CBS News: Don't Put Off Getting Your Estate in Order
- Humane Society of the United States: Providing for Your Pet’s Future Without You
- American Bar Association: Giving Someone a Power of Attorney For Your Health Care
A graduate of New York University, Jane Meggitt writes regularly for various legal blogs. Her work has appeared in LegalZoom, USA Today and many other publications.