There are number of legal precautions to take in your later years. And they don’t have to be painful.

Illustration by David Pohl.

Health care ethicist Mark Repenshek hears the same excuses whenever he explains to people why they should create a living will and other end-of-life directives: “I don’t have a diagnosis. I’m fine,” they’ll tell him. Or, “I don’t want to burden my family.” Or, “I don’t need this now. This is for my parents.”

But, in his presentations at Columbia-St. Mary’s Hospital, the participants inevitably come around. They see how important it is to have a legal document that names a representative who will speak on their behalf, or their parents’ behalf, when they no longer can. 

Agreeing to sign the document is a big step. “But the toughest part is not filling out the forms and checking the boxes,” says Repenshek. It’s the conversation between aging parents and children, and husbands and wives, that is arduous. “There’s tears, there’s laughter. But it’s just getting at the heart of the matter,” he says.

Mequon attorney Carol Wessels began practicing elder law in 1991, helping people write their advance directives – legal papers that spell out decisions on end-of-life care – such as powers of attorney. She’s seen a steady increase in the number of clients as baby boomers retire, media coverage pushes aging issues to the forefront, and the rates of Alzheimer’s and dementia rise.

Several directives can be done without a lawyer. Forms can be found online  or by phone (608-266-1251) for filing a Wisconsin living will, power of attorney for health care, power of attorney for finance, and authorization for final disposition. But Wessels, former chair of the Wisconsin State Bar Association’s elder law section, cautions against wading into complicated legal issues alone. “I get a lot of business fixing things that people have done badly on their own,” she says. “Usually, it’s more expensive if you’re trying to fix something.”

She advises clients to follow this legal checklist:

Designate a power of attorney for health care. This document allows you to choose who will make decisions about your care if you become incapacitated – when to stop or start medical treatments, for example, or whether you should be moved to a care facility.

Elect a power of attorney for finances. This specifies who will handle your bank accounts and investments. 

A living will allows you to declare that you do not want to be kept alive by artificial means if death is imminent or you are in a persistent vegetative state. Doctors are bound to honor your orders. Meanwhile, a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order directs emergency personnel not to attempt cardiopulmonary resuscitation in the event of cardiac or respiratory arrest. In addition, signed medical releases (HIPAA releases) permit your designated representatives to get health care information before a health care power of attorney is activated. Copies of the directives and releases should be filed with your current doctors.

Consider long-term care insurance, says Wessels, which generally covers home care, assisted living, adult daycare, hospice care, as well as nursing home and Alzheimer’s facilities. 

Write a will or establish a trust to dispose of your properties upon death. (Secure the original copy in a safe place that is known to beneficiaries.) 

Name a beneficiary or trustee on life insurance policies, annuities, retirement accounts, and all other “payable on death” accounts. 

Sign a “transfer on death” deed if you own real estate property. This will help beneficiaries avoid probate.

Put together a “when I die” file that includes instructions on where to find insurance policies, bank account numbers, and all those online passwords that you’ve tried to commit to memory. 

Finally, don’t forget your four-legged or feathered friends. If you have pets, make sure they go to a good home.



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