4 Legal Documents Every Adult Needs

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It’s all too easy to put off getting your legal paperwork in order. But when a major crisis hits, whether it’s an accident, illness, or death, it’s usually too late to start printing, signing, and notarizing forms. Here are the documents every adult needs now, so they’re ready if you require them later.

1. A will

Also known as a “last will and testament,” a will is a legal document that details your final wishes about how to distribute your assets after death. In your will, you appoint an executor who will manage the distribution of your estate to your beneficiaries or heirs. A will is important even if you don’t have millions to pass on to your heirs: Who do you want to hold on to Great Aunt Sophie’s tea set or the family china? Who do you hope will take care of your pets? Or handle selling or passing along your house full of furniture? The will allows you to spell out all of that. And this vital document is also where you’ll appoint a guardian to any minor children you may have.

While you don’t need an attorney to draft a will, laws governing wills can vary from state to state. If you draft the will yourselfit may be worth meeting briefly with an attorney to review the document.

2. A living will

Though the name overlaps with a last will and testament, a living will is actually quite different. This is a document that tells doctors, medical professionals, and family which treatments you want if you’re dying, permanently unconscious, or otherwise unable to make decisions about emergency care. It has nothing to do with age; adults of all ages can benefit from having these wishes spelled out.

In the living will, also known as an advance directive, you select which procedures you would want performed and which you would not, as well as when your choices apply. Keep in mind the living will only goes into effect if you’re unable to speak for yourself. You can find these documents and forms online; Five Wishes provides a form ($5) which meets the legal requirements for advance directives in 42 states and Washington, D.C. Or you can find your state’s forms here:

3. Durable power of attorney for health care

While a living will can include a comprehensive checklist about the types of treatments you’d like considered, it’s hard for a checklist to be fully comprehensive or interpret nuance. To that end, it’s vital to have a durable health care power of attorney. This legal document allows you to appoint a health care proxy who is empowered to talk to your doctors, access your health care information, and make medical decisions about your care, if you’re unable to do so yourself. A health care proxy is also charged with determining which hospital, medical facility, nursing home, or hospice center to send you to for care.

Forms to select a proxy vary from state to state; you can use the advance care directive finder above to get your state’s form. In general the forms must be signed by two adult witnesses (not including your proxy) and should be shared with your health care providers and close family members. You should also carry it on your person, in case of medical emergency.

4. Durable financial power of attorney

If you were hospitalized or otherwise unable to take care of your finances, who would pay your rent or mortgage? How would you make sure that incoming checks were deposited, or your investments and property managed properly? A durable power of attorney allows you to appoint a person, known as an attorney-in-fact or agent, to govern your financial and personal affairs if you are unable to do so. (That’s different from a simple power of attorney, which allows someone to access and manage your financial accounts, but doesn’t continue once you’re incapacitated.)

If you become incapacitated without this legal safeguard in place, your loved ones may have to slog through a costly and time-intensive court process to appoint a guardian or conservator to make financial and personal decisions on your behalf. It’s far quicker and easier to appoint an agent ahead of time. With a durable financial power of attorney, your agent will be able to step in and manage your money without getting the courts involved—and you can make sure that it’s someone you selected yourself.

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