‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.’ – Benjamin Franklin
No one wants to think about the day they are no longer on this earth, but having a plan in place can save you and your entire family from confusion, inconvenience, and unwanted arrangements when the time comes.
As of 2020, about 17 percent of the American population was 65 years old and older. That’s about 50 million senior citizens. From 2009 to 2019, the number of Americans 60 and older increased by 34 percent, from 55.7 million to 74.6 million. The percentage of Americans older than 65 is expected to reach 22 percent by 2050, according to estimates. This makes the percentage of the population 65 and older the fastest growing segment of the population by age.
That ominous sounding “get your affairs in order” phrase, though, doesn’t apply to just senior citizens. The global pandemic proved that in a way that cannot be denied or forgotten. As of June 2023, over 200,000 people between 50 and 64 years-old died from COVID-19. Another 46,000 fatalities were between 40 and 49.
Being prepared for potential illness, disability, or death, with your documents together in a single place, will give you peace of mind, and help ensure that your final choices are honored. Select the person(s) you want to make decisions for you and to speak on your behalf. Healthcare and legal systems will go to great lengths to follow your documented directions. It can be a demoralizing, contentious scene when estranged relatives, often a patient’s children, swoop in demanding authority, whether from a sense of entitlement, guilt, grief, or remorse.
Steps for getting your affairs in order
According to recommendations from the National Institutes of Health, prepare and organize important records and files all in one place; include personal, financial, and health information. Remember, this is a starting place. You may have other information to add.
1. Plan for your estate and finances. Common documents include a will, durable power of attorney for finances, and a living trust.
- A will specifies how your estate — your property, money, and other assets — will be distributed and managed when you die. A will can also address care for children under the age of 18, adult dependents, and pets, as well as gifts and end-of-life arrangements, such as a funeral or memorial service and burial or cremation. If you do not have a will, your estate will be distributed according to the laws in your state.
- A durable power of attorney for finances names who will make financial decisions for you when you are unable to make them.
- A living trust names a person, called the trustee, and tells them to hold and distribute property and funds when you can no manage these.
2. Plan for your future health care. Advance directives are legal documents that provide instructions for medical care if you cannot communicate your own choices due to disease or injury. The most common advance directives include a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care.
- A living will tells healthcare providers how you want to be treated if you cannot make your own decisions in an emergency.
- A durable power of attorney for health care names your health care proxy, a person who can make health care decisions for you if you are unable to
communicate these yourself. Having a health care proxy helps you plan for situations that cannot be foreseen, such as a serious auto accident or stroke.
3. Put your important papers and copies of legal documents in one place. You can set up a file or put everything in a drawer. Record the location of papers in writing. You may want to use a fireproof and waterproof safe to store your documents. If your papers are in a bank safe deposit box, keep copies at home.
4. Tell someone you know and trust or a lawyer where to find your important papers.
5. Talk to your loved ones and doctor about advance care planning. A doctor can help you understand potential health decisions and plan the kinds of treatment you may want. Discussing advance care planning with your doctor is free through Medicare during your annual wellness visit. Private health insurance may also cover these discussions. Avoid surprises or misunderstandings by disclosing your choices to family or friends.
6. Give permission in advance for a doctor or lawyer to talk with your caregiver as needed. You may need to sign and return a form. Giving permission for your doctor or lawyer to talk with your caregiver is different from naming a health care proxy. A health care proxy can make decisions only if you are unable to communicate them yourself.
7. Review your plans regularly. It’s important to review your plans at least once each year and when any major life event occurs, like a divorce, move, or major change in your health.
Help with getting your affairs in order
You may want to talk with a lawyer about setting up a general power of attorney, durable power of attorney, joint account, or trust. Ask about the lawyer’s fees before you make an appointment.
You do not have to involve a lawyer in creating your advance directives for health care. Most states provide free forms which you can complete them yourself. You should be able to find a directory of local lawyers on the internet, the public library, or your local bar association.