As the U.S. continues struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic, considering whether you have easy access to the right emergency documents could be critical. Regardless if you live in a coronavirus hotspot or don’t know anyone who has had COVID-19, there’s never been a better time to understand how different legal documents can protect you.
Here are five types of emergency documents that will help you and your family make essential healthcare decisions and manage your finances during an unexpected illness or accident.
1. Last will
Your last will is a document that communicates your final wishes after your death. Every adult should have a will. Otherwise, the courts decide what happens to your possessions and who will take care of any minor children who survive you. You don’t need a lawyer to create a will, but if you have a high net worth, have several different types of assets or just want a bit of guidance, hiring one could be a good idea. You can list beneficiaries for specific items, such as who you want to receive your car, home or art collection. You could distribute values to particular people or organizations, such as 80% to your partner and 20% to a charity.
If you have minor children, be sure to name their guardian in your will to protect them if you pass away before they become adults. You can include funeral instructions in your will, such as where you want to be buried. Since someone must manage the legal details of your estate and carry out your final wishes, you should name an “executor” in your will. It could be your attorney, a family member or friend you trust to handle all the arrangements. Be sure to name someone who’s willing and capable of doing the job.
If you already have a will, don’t forget to review it periodically. Certain life events — such as getting married, divorced, having a child and losing a family member — may make updates necessary.
2. Living will
In addition to a last will, you also need a living will, which details your wishes for end-of-life care. It provides instructions for your doctors and family about how to make critical decisions if you face death.
For instance, if you were unresponsive for an extended period or in the final stages of a terminal condition, your living will would indicate if you’d want to extend your life by artificial means or die without medical intervention.
3. Healthcare proxy
Getting a severe illness or being in an accident that leaves you mentally incapacitated is tough to think about, but it can happen. To prepare, you can select a healthcare proxy. This is someone you authorize to make critical medical decisions for you.
Consider who you’d trust with your care if you couldn’t make decisions on your own, and discuss your wishes with them.
4. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) release
Your medical privacy is protected by HIPAA, which means some hospitals won’t allow medical professionals to disclose any information about you, even to your healthcare proxy. To make sure your family or proxy can manage your healthcare in an emergency, create a medical privacy release.
5. Power of attorney (POA)
The last emergency document you should have is a power of attorney, which allows another person to stand in for you if you need help managing financial decisions or legal affairs.
For instance, you can use a durable power of attorney any time you’re not capable of completing a critical task, such as filing taxes or making an insurance claim. You can also create one or more limited powers of attorney, which names people to act on your behalf for specific transactions during a limited period, such as selling your home.
Having a POA is how your finances can get handled if you become incapacitated, are unavailable or don’t have time to manage them yourself.
Additional documents to have available
You never know when you’ll need access to important documents. Keeping your birth certificate and Social Security card in a safe, accessible place is a good practice. You may want to consider a fire- and water-resistant home safe for these documents. That way, if your home suffers damage, your important documents are kept safe and easily accessible.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also brought a wave of housing insecurity to the country. Along with your legal documents, you may want to keep your mortgage closing documents, the deed to your home or your rental agreement paperwork in your home safe. If you need these documents in a hurry, you’ll know right where to go to get them.
Emergency documents for married couples
If you’re married, your spouse may be able to make some emergency and legal decisions for you. But if both of you were incapacitated at the same time, what would happen? Consider the effect if there was a need to sell jointly-owned assets, such as a home or investments, where each of you were required to authorize the transaction.
To avoid potential legal restrictions during a difficult time, married couples and domestic partners should consider giving each other power of attorney. Each person also needs their own last will, living will, health care proxy and HIPPA release. To plan for all eventualities, you may want to include a plan for who will handle your affairs if both of you are unable to do so. Making sure the designated person has the proper paperwork in place to step in when necessary could make things easier for them.
After an emergency happens, it’s usually too late to make many critical decisions. So, it helps to do yourself and your family a favor by getting all your legal documents in place ahead of time. Preparing for a potential disaster is usually easier than recovering from one that you didn’t see coming.
The best places to keep your emergency documents
Once you have emergency documents, it’s critical to keep the originals safe. You might want to consider keeping your documents:
- In your attorney’s office
- In a bank safe deposit box
- In a fire- and water-resistant safe at home
You may also want to make copies of your documents to store at another location, like a trusted friend’s house, in case your copies or the originals are damaged or destroyed. You could also scan and upload your legal documents to the cloud, using a service such as Google Drive or Dropbox.