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Overview of legal documents


A person planning for aging and end of life must make a set of important decisions about medical, financial, and legal matters. Once they have made these decisions, they need to put them into legal documents to make sure they are carried out. This article covers the basic documents that every person should have related to their finances, estate, medical treatment, and remains. It also covers some non-legal documents that state a person’s wishes and preferences. 

Documents related to finances and the estate

There are three main legal documents that detail a person’s decisions about their finances and estate. These are a will, a living trust, and a durable financial power of attorney.

A will

A will is also called a last will and testament. It lists the family, friends, organizations, and others who are to receive a person’s belongings, money, and other assets after their death. It also says what they want done with their remains (for instance, buried or cremated). 

The individual making the will must name at least one person to be legally in charge of carrying out the will’s instructions when the individual dies. This person is called the executor or executrix.

A living trust

A living trust is a lot like a will. It says who will receive money, property, and other assets after a person dies. Unlike a will, though, a trust also can say how the assets will be managed and handed out while the person is still alive. 

The living trust document names the person or people who will look after the assets. These people are called trustees. Often the person who owns the assets will be the main trustee until either they are no longer able to make decisions for themselves or they die. When that happens, the other trustees take over. 

A trust only includes certain types of assets, so anyone with a living trust should also have a will.

Durable financial power of attorney

A durable financial power of attorney gives an individual the legal right to handle financial and legal matters for the person nearing end of life. These transactions may include paying bills, signing checks, and filing tax returns.

Documents related to medical treatment and remains

There are four  main legal documents that detail a person’s decisions about medical treatment and their remains. These are a living will, a do not resuscitate (DNR) order, a do not intubate (DNI) order, and a durable medical power of attorney.

All of these documents are called “advance directives,” because they give doctors, medics, and caregivers advance directions about desired treatment.

A living will

A living will is different from either a regular will or a living trust. It is the document that says what medical treatments the person does and does not want. For example, they may say that they don’t want to be put on feeding tubes or that they don’t want to be given radiation treatment. The living will only takes effect if the person is permanently unconscious or in the last stages of a life-ending illness.

A Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order

A DNR order is a document given to a person by a doctor that says that the person should not be given CPR if they stop breathing or their heart stops beating. It is different from a living will because a person can only get one when a doctor has already decided that the person is permanently unconscious or in the last stages of a life-ending illness. 

A Do Not Intubate (DNI) order

A DNI order is similar to a DNR order. It tells doctors or emergency medics not to put a breathing tube into a person’s airway if they have stopped breathing on their own or can only breathe when put on a ventilator. A person can have both a DNI and DNR order or just one or the other. 

Durable medical power of attorney (also called health care proxy) 

A durable medical power of attorney gives a person the legal right to make medical decisions for an individual if that individual is no longer able to act for themselves. Medical power of attorney and financial power of attorney are different documents, so they need to be obtained separately. 

Non-legal documents that state a person’s wishes and preferences

In addition to the basic legal documents covered in this article, a person doing end-of-life planning might want to create some non-legal documents that state their preferences. These can include a list of assets and liabilities and a Letter of Last Instruction.

A list of assets and liabilities

A list of assets and liabilities states what assets (money and belongings) a person has and what financial liabilities (debts) a person has. It is used to record important financial information for the caregivers and estate planner, and for the person to refer to when making their will.

A Letter of Last Instruction

A Letter of Last Instruction is left by an individual for their family members so that their affairs are easier to manage once they’ve passed. It contains information such as personal contacts and passwords, the location of important documents, a list of people the individual wants to give items or money to, instructions for pet care after the individual’s death, and what kind of funeral and memorial service they want.

Related information

Advance directives

Assets and liabilities

Creating legal documents

Durable power of attorney

Living wills

Medical power of attorney

Overview of estate plans

Overview of trusts

Will and testament

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