No one anticipates a catastrophic illness, a medical emergency, or sudden death, but it happens. And if it happens to you, it’s crucial to have your important healthcare and financial documents in order ahead of time. Why? So that if you are unable to speak for yourself, the documents will speak for you.
Not everyone feels comfortable having these conversations. Ideally, speak with your family members or trusted agents and convey your wishes to them in advance. If you need tips to get started, visit The Conversation Project, a public engagement initiative that helps people talk about their care wishes.
Although difficult, it’s important to plan in advance. These healthcare, financial, and emergency documents will help you outline your wishes.
Important healthcare documents
• Healthcare power of attorney. A durable healthcare power of attorney (POA) document is an important order that appoints someone with the power to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so yourself. With this form, available on the Illinois Department on Aging’s website, you can appoint an agent as well as specify your wishes for life-sustaining care.
Because no form can anticipate all the medical treatment decisions that you may face in an emergency, the POA is a broad document that names a legal representative who can make decisions for you if you can’t.
When you appoint someone as your POA, don’t keep it a secret. Let them know you’ve selected them and discuss your end-of-life wishes. “Ideally, you would communicate with them your choices and preferences, and they [would be] aware of how you want to be treated,” says Daxa Sanghvi, a caregiver specialist at the Kenneth Young Center, a social service agency in Elk Grove Village.
In Illinois, you’ll need one witness to sign the healthcare POA form, but you don’t need a notary.
• Practitioner orders for life-sustaining treatment. The practitioner orders for life-sustaining treatment (POLST) document is a medical order — which you and a healthcare practitioner sign — that specifies your wishes about emergency life-sustaining procedures, such as resuscitation, intubation, or a feeding tube. Without this form, paramedics and emergency responders are required to try to keep an individual alive.
The POLST includes do not resuscitate (DNR) orders, which specify whether practitioners should attempt resuscitation if you’re not breathing. The form lets you select whether you want full life-sustaining treatment, treatment using selected medical measures, or comfort-focused care to relieve pain and suffering.
Someone who has multiple health conditions and is already struggling medically might choose DNR after consulting with their doctor. “The rationale is, if that person is treated, it would affect their quality of life to the extent that it would not be in their best interest to resuscitate them,” Sanghvi says.
• Living will. A living will spells out your end-of-life wishes — such as whether you want death-delaying procedures if you have a terminal illness. Unlike healthcare power of attorney, it applies only for medical care if you have a terminal condition and does not name a legal agent.
You’ll need two witnesses for the living will form in Illinois, but you don’t need a notary’s signature.
• Five Wishes. Five Wishes is another type of advance directive that’s written in a more user-friendly manner. The document, which costs $5 to download, walks individuals through many important end-of-life issues in an easy-to-understand way.
People use Five Wishes to share their end-of-life preferences, Sanghvi explains. They can describe the type of music they want playing, the food they would like to eat, the people they want present, prayers they would like recited, life-support procedures they desire, and whether they want a funeral or cremation.
Important financial documents
• Will. “A will is a written document that spells out who will get your assets upon your death,” says Jory Ives Chelin, an attorney in the Chelin Law Group in Des Plaines. “Most everyone should have a will unless every asset they have has a co-owner. If there are two people on the account, the asset automatically goes to the other person.” A will takes effect after you die, and your family members may need to go through a prolonged probate process to settle the will.
• Trust. A living revocable trust is a legal document in which a person transfers their assets from their name into the name of the trust, Chelin explains. You can name yourself as the trustee — meaning you control the assets while you are alive — and also appoint someone to be your successor trustee when you die. Upon your death, the assets in the trust will be distributed to the beneficiaries who are named in it.
“If you want to avoid the probate system, there are two ways to do it,” Chelin says. “One is to set up a trust and put all of your assets into the name of the trust. Two is to have a second person’s name on all of your accounts with you, so that when you die, everything goes to the surviving person.”
Chelin strongly recommends that an attorney write these documents for you. Many people try to do it themselves based on inaccurate information from the internet, he says. Plus, laws vary from state to state.
• Power of attorney for property. In Illinois, your power of attorney for property, also called a financial power of attorney, is your financial proxy. If you are unable to manage your finances — paying bills and handling accounts — your financial power of attorney agent will step in as needed.
It’s important to appoint someone you trust, because you are giving your agent the right to control your financial assets and property if you are incapacitated. The Illinois form lets you specify what types of financial transactions are included in your designation. You will need to have at least one witness as well as a notary sign the form.
“Many older adults are hesitant to have a power of attorney, thinking they would lose control of their personal affairs,” Sanghvi explains. “Please be aware that you maintain the control as long as you are able to” and not incapacitated.
It’s best to have a lawyer draw up your healthcare and financial papers, Sanghvi says, to make sure they are valid and you understand the implications of your choices.
A single piece of paper may be the simplest way to prepare for a medical emergency or a sudden trip to the hospital. Sanghvi advises writing everything a paramedic needs to know about you on one sheet of paper. Place it inside a plastic sleeve labeled “emergency information,” stick it on your refrigerator door with a magnet, or tape it near your front door.
On this paper, list the following:
- Your medical conditions and diagnoses.
- Medications you are taking, including dosages and frequency.
- Allergies, especially to medications or to latex.
- Contact information for your primary care physician and any specialists.
- At least two emergency contacts.
Beth Myers, CEO and founder of 2×2 Health, a private healthcare concierge in Chicago, suggests keeping a binder handy that contains your full medical history.
Insert a copy of the emergency information sheet and add information about past surgeries, medications you stopped taking and why (so they are not prescribed again), and copies of lab work to avoid duplicate testing, says Myers, who is author of the book The Confident Patient.
Getting your papers in order may sound like a daunting task. But once it’s done, you can rest easy. Other than adding occasional updates, you shouldn’t have to think about it again. With these important healthcare and financial documents, planning ahead can give you great peace of mind.