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One Financial Must-Do You Can't Skip

Living wills are not necessarily something you want to think about, but they're something you should.

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It’s right up there with lacy lingerie, dry martinis and pool boys.

All right, fine.

We admit it: Living wills are not the sexiest thing under the sun, but we had to get your attention. Because this is one of those to-dos you could really regret putting off.

Why This Can’t Wait

A lot of financial topics (like, say, retirement) deal with things that feel pretty far away, but the items in a living will could affect you and your family tomorrow.

A living will outlines your medical choices if you got into a position where you couldn’t communicate them yourself. When you create one, you’ll also choose a health care proxy—in other words, someone you trust to carry out your wishes. These documents would be incredibly important if (heaven forbid) you got into an accident and fell into a coma, or faced another serious health issue that rendered you incapable of expressing your wants.

It’s not very pleasant to think about, but a living will could save your family a lot of misery—and money—while providing you with peace of mind. And that brings us to another important point: Living wills are not just for the elderly. They are a huge help in the event that a sudden accident (think: Amy Winehouse) or ill health should befall you at any age.

What Happens If You Don’t Have One?

If you don’t have a living will or proxy, the hospital will “prioritize who should be making decisions,” explains Howard Sosnik, a partner at the estate planning firm Karol Hausman & Sosnik. If you don’t have a spouse—or if there are multiple family members bickering about your treatment—things could get messy.

“If there’s a total lack of ability to decide, then the next step would be to go to court and ask for the court to appoint a guardian,” Sosnik says. But the court process can be incredibly costly for the family, both financially and emotionally. Remember Terry Schaivo?

The good news is that although the process of creating a living will may vary by state, the process is neither time-consuming nor expensive.

Here’s what you need:

1. Decisions About What You Want

Making a living will is one easy step that can save your family a lot of misery—and money.

What sort of treatment would you want in different situations, and where would you draw the line? If you were very ill, would you want CPR? What about a breathing machine? Living wills typically express an individual’s preferences when it comes to issues like resuscitation, tube feeding and organ donation.

We know how unpleasant it is to think about these possibilities, but it’s important to specify your opinion on anything you feel strongly about. Often, living wills dictate that treatment should stop if physicians conclude that there’s no chance of recovery or return to a good quality of life. If your preferences differ, you can write them into your will.

2. A Health Care Proxy

A health care proxy is responsible for carrying out your living will on your behalf. Choose someone you know will act honestly and maturely with your interests at heart (do not choose someone because you feel obligated). This can be a family member or a friend, or an outside adviser who can make unbiased decisions free from family drama.

Once you decide on someone, inform him or her of your decision and meet to discuss your living will before drawing up the official forms.

3. The Will Itself

We recommend hiring a licensed attorney to draw up your living will since there are so many factors to consider (particularly since medical laws vary by state). That said, you can write your own, and it’s better to have a living will you’ve created yourself than nothing at all. Here is a step-by-step guide to ensure your will covers every angle:

• Find free sample living wills at FindLaw.com.
• Download and print forms from your state’s website (for a fee) to know what your particular state requires. Note: Some states refer to living wills as “advance health care directives.”
• If applicable, ask your religious group for a living will template reflecting your religion’s moral teachings.
• Fill out the forms, and have them signed by your chosen health care proxy.

Whatever you decide, get this out of the way when you are relaxed, feeling good and have time to think. As Sosnik points out, “You don’t want to be thinking about this when you’re under duress.”

4. Official, Up-to-Date Documents

If you’ve written your own living will, get it notarized. Then give a copy to your health care proxy, your attorney and maybe even your family doctor. Keep a copy for yourself and store it in a safe but accessible spot. You might also want to keep a card in your wallet that says you have a living will and where it can be found.

Sosnik recommends looking over your documents every three to five years to make sure they still describe your wishes accurately. If you end up moving to a new state, check your new state’s guidelines, as some will require you to create a new living will when you move.

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