End-of-life documents, or documents that state your preferences for end-of-life care, ensure your wishes are followed prior to and following your death. All the following forms can be completed starting in adulthood and should be completed prior to incapacitation and death. While some of these forms can be completed by yourself, others may require witnesses, attorneys, medical professionals, notaries, and/or beneficiaries to be present.
A living trust names a trustee, or someone to manage assets, for the eventual beneficiary while the grantor still lives. This is often confused with the living will, which focuses on medical preferences. The trustee will have the fiduciary duty, or commitment to act in the best interests of another. The living trust may be either irrevocable or revocable, that is, the trust may be changed while the grantor is alive.
A living trust becomes operational upon the death of the grantor. The benefit of a living trust is that dissimilar to a will, a living trust passes assets outside of probate court, meaning that no court or attorney fees will be required.
Who is involved: You, a third-party, a notary, and a beneficiary (may change on a state-by-state basis)
Organ and Tissue Donation
Organ and tissue donation refers to the donation of your body, organs, or tissues after death for medical use. The level of donation depends on applicability at the time of death, but if you wish to partake in body, organ, or tissue donation, registering yourself prior to incapacitation can be very simple. In many states, it is an option to elect organ donation on your driver’s license or you can visit organdonor.gov to ensure you are signed up. For whole-body donations, finding a service in your area or
Who is involved: You.
Power of Attorney
A power of attorney (POA) is a legal document that allows a person to make and execute decisions on behalf of another. The person who makes the decisions is often called the agent, proxy, or attorney-in-fact, and the person who decisions are made for is called the principle. Power of attorney can be used to cover medical, financial, or legal decisions and be limited, or can be a general power of attorney. Legal codes change on a state-by-state basis, so the requirements and processes might defer. Consult with an attorney if you are unsure of any part or type of the POA process.
Who is involved: You, a third-party person, and a notary.
Durable Power of Attorney
Durable power of attorney is a type of power of attorney, in that it allows for the power of attorney to be in effect after the principle has become incapacitated, as result of something like illness or accident. Durable power of attorney agreements are used most often to prepare for medical emergencies, end-of-life cognitive decline, or any other situation where you would no longer be able to make decisions for yourself.
Financial Power of Attorney
Financial power of attorney (POA) allows a person to make and execute financial decisions on behalf of another. The person who makes the decisions is often called the agent and the person who decisions are made for is called the principle. The POA can be very broad or very narrow in terms of the decision-making power awarded to the trusted agent. Some states automatically dictate if the POA is durable, or if the POA will remain in effect if the principle becomes incapacitated. For a POA to be created, the principle must do so of their free will and the agent must also be of sound mind. States will usually provide free Power of Attorney forms, but you can also find forms online.
Medical Power of Attorney
The healthcare power of attorney entails an agent to make decisions regarding medical treatment for a principle. It may also be referred to as power of attorney for healthcare, advance healthcare directive, advance directive, or medical power of attorney directive. The decisions may be about medication, surgery, hospice care, or even align with a living will and DNR orders (described below).
A living will, or advance directive specifically protects your preferences for end-of-life medical treatment and pain management care. This document can specify similar preferences as a Do Not Resuscitate order but can also include your wishes regarding other treatments such as organ donation, palliative care, dialysis, or tube feeding.
Who is involved: You and a notary.
A DNR or do not resuscitate order will prevent physicians from reviving or resuscitating you if your heart stops or you stop breathing. Resuscitating can be in the form of CPR, defibrillation, mouth-to-mouth, and intubation. DNR forms might also be referred to as DNAR (Do Not Attempt Resuscitation), POLST (Physician Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment), AND (Allow Natural Death), or MOLST (Medical Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment).
A DNR form is by no means required to fill out, the absence of one just means you do want to be resuscitated in case of a life-threatening event. In many cases, those who consider DNR forms have some form of terminal illness that would cause suffering beyond a natural death, or they are elderly and do not wish to be subjected to the sometimes intense forces of reviving, or they do not wish to be resuscitated due to religious reasons. In any case, a DNR form is a deeply personal matter.
Each state has its own laws for withholding resuscitation and usually entail a requirement that the signee authorizes the form along with their primary care physician, notary public, or witness(es). See more information here.
Funeral Plan and Obituary
Planning your own funeral, while optional, can be a large help to family members and loved ones who wish to know your preferences for end-of-life ceremonies. Identifying information like where you wish to be buried, if you prefer cremation or burial, any funeral home preferences or even details you wish to have in your ceremonies can take pressure off of loved ones who will need to make these decisions. Additionally, researching the cost of any services you would like and setting aside money can be very helpful. You can see the FTC funeral planning tool here: Planning Your Own Funeral | FTC Consumer Information
Similarly, gathering information for your obituary can aid grieving loved ones after passing. Sometimes records such as birthplace and childhood information can be difficult to find. This also gives you the ability to identify the aspects of your life you’d like to be highlighted.
Last will and testament
A last will and testament is a legal document that conveys a person’s final preferences regarding assets and dependents after death. The last will and testament will determine what is done with possessions, from identifying if they should be left to another person or donated. Additionally, the remaining responsibilities of the deceased are identified and conveyed to another, like custody and financial accounts.
The requirements and form of the last will and testament will change on a state-to-state basis. There are many online templates to draft a last will and testament.
Who is involved: You, a lawyer, a beneficiary, a third party.
Personal and Financial Records
Establishing a set place for financial and personal records as well as notifying a family member of their location is a very important measure to take. In addition to the documents above, storing important tax information, bill information, medication history, and more in a set location will aid those after possible incapacitation or passing. You can store the physical copies in a home safe, designated file folder, or cabinet. Additionally, there are many services that offer digital or cloud-based document storage, a list of which can be seen here: End-of-Life Planning: There’s an App for That (crossroadshospice.com).