Handling Legal and Heath Issues When There Is No One To Help

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Several readers have expressed interest in a subject that could be extremely important to the future of your satisfying retirement: How do we prepare to have our legal and health wishes followed if there is no family, relatives, or friends willing or competent to take on those responsibilities? Are we willing to have a court decide what is to become of us and our affairs? I assume that the answer is, “No.” Being at the mercy of an anonymous judge in probate court is not where most of us would choose to find ourselves.

That means there are certain basic steps that should be taken while we remain in full control of our facilities and decision-making abilities. There are documents to be prepared and someone to be selected to implement our wishes. Since I am not a lawyer, anything I say comes from my own experiences and Internet research. As the saying goes, check with an attorney before proceeding.

Likewise, I have a family, and others I would trust to handle decisions that are in my best interest. So to answer the questions asked, again I turned to some basic research that I hope will provide some answers.

Let’s start with some of the legal stuff that can be the foundation of your future care. I won’t go into too much detail, but if something seems as if you should have this, I will provide a few links at the end of the post. Plus, the Internet has all sorts of reliable resources to find out more.

1) Will. This should be the first document you prepare (or have prepared for you). It is the legal framework for what happens to your possessions and financial resources upon your death. It specifies who gets what and when. Wills can be prepared using a simple online form or from forms available in office supply stores. Online places, like Legal Zoom, are places to look.  A lawyer can draw up a will as well. This is best if your situation is a little more complicated.  

2) Living Will. This document is the one that helps spell out the medical care you want prior to your death but when you are unable to communicate your wishes. Do you want or not want a feeding tube used? Do you want a “Do Not Resuscitate”  order for medical workers, and when should it be invoked? How about devices that keep you alive when the medical likelihood of recovery is minimal? 

These are very tough subjects to think about, but imagine how much more stressful and difficult it would be for someone else to make these decisions without knowing your wishes.

3) Power of Attorney. This document gives some other person or entity the ability to make medical and financial decisions for you. You can revoke and rewrite a POA as many times as you want.

3) Durable Power of Attorney. This is what takes the place of the Power of Attorney document upon your incapacitation or death. The person or entity named is fully responsible for all decisions that involve your care and finances.

4) Health Directives. Basically, this acts as a Durable Power of Attorney directive, though it only deals with health decisions, not financial ones.

There are other ways to handle your affairs, such as putting possessions in trusts or estates, but those topics are too involved for this post. In essence, they create a separate legal entity for all your possessions and resources. I urge you to do some research if this seems like something you’d like to know more about.

OK, now we are at the heart of the issue: We have reviewed what legal documents should have prepared. But, who is going to implement them according to your wishes? Who knows you well enough to make tough decisions and speak up on my behalf, even if that means demanding more information and details from a doctor or lawyer? Who will do what you want to be done for as long as possible?

One caution as you think about the medical concerns is to not make it impossible for the person implementing your wishes to follow through. For example, you tell someone you never want to go to a nursing home. Well, the reality is that sometimes the only prudent medical or financial choice is to do so. Staying at home just won’t work. I caution to be careful of how narrow a window of options you make part of your legal desires.

The place I found to begin to help find answers and workable solutions to this critical dilemma is an organization called Healthcare Improvement. On a special website,  they have assembled the best collection of information on this subject that I found.

It explains all about what a health proxy is and how to find one, even if a choice isn’t obvious. There are sections that provide checklists to assess possible candidates for you. It helps guide you into what to do if you don’t have a family member, relatives, or even neighbor you trust to take on these responsibilities. Fiduciary companies, Banks, and other financial institutions are possible options that have very strict legal oversight and responsibilities to you that must be followed.

This site makes the very wise suggestion of filling out the various forms and putting your wishes in writing; even if you don’t settle on someone to handle your affairs, the court system will place great weight on your notarized, written wishes.

I urge you to visit The Conversation Project website for the most complete review of what all of this means to you and how to make the best decisions.

If a lawyer reads this post and would like to clarify or amend anything written, by all means, leave a comment. My legal training begins and ends with taking care of me and my wife’s preparations and overseeing my parents’ estate after their deaths.

For those who asked for a post centered on this delicate subject, I hope I have given you at least a place to start to get answers for your unique situation.