As you look ahead to the new year, you may be wondering what steps you can take to keep your family healthy, safe, and protected in the future.  If you work with a financial advisor, you know how important it is to have financial and estate planning documents in place. From a health perspective, a living will and other medical paperwork are just as essential.

Do you have a living will? Have you selected a medical surrogate or healthcare proxy? Many people procrastinate on completing or updating their medical documents until something goes wrong, but at that point it may be too late. Now is the best time to get your medical and end-of-life paperwork in order—and to ensure that your family has theirs in order, too.

Think of it as a gift to your loved ones. Completing your essential medical paperwork is quite simple, and by getting it out of the way, you are making life easier for yourself and your family in the future.

Marti Jo McCoy, LCSW, is a Senior Health Advisor with Better Health Advisors who is also trained as a professional guardian in the state of Florida. Here, she answers some common questions about setting up essential medical paperwork.

What is a living will?
A living will, also known as an advance healthcare directive, is a legal document that explains your healthcare wishes. It becomes effective when you are unable to make your own decisions. For example, if someone is seriously injured in a car accident and reliant on machines to keep them alive, a living will lets their family members know if they want their life prolonged in that way.

Who needs a living will?
Everybody. Even someone who is 20 years old should have one, because people don't go in order. Covid has shown us that there is no rhyme or reason to who may have a medical incident. 

Why is it important to set up a living will now?
If you wait until you need a living will, in many cases, it’s too late to set one up. At that point, making a decision about your health may require an expensive legal process, and sometimes a decision needs to be made immediately.

What is a medical surrogate?
This is also called a healthcare proxy or healthcare power of attorney. By completing this document, you’re appointing someone you trust to make healthcare decisions for you if you are unable to make decisions for yourself.  

How can I set up these documents?
If your situation is complex, you may want to talk to an attorney, but you can also set it all up online. The requirements vary from state to state, so start by doing a web search for legal documents in your state. You’ll find sample forms and instructions. For example, New York provides a guide to setting up advanced directives, a living will form, and a healthcare proxy form.

Do my medical documents need to be notarized?
It depends on your state—and your unique circumstances. If you are concerned about potential family infighting over decisions, it’s best to have your documents notarized.

What other documents do I need?
If you are in a coma or otherwise incapacitated, your family may need to access your accounts to pay bills or sign documents for you. Setting up a Durable Power of Attorney authorizes someone to act on your behalf in a wide range of legal and business matters. 

Someone with a terminal illness may want to complete a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) form, which specifies that if they experience a heart attack or other medical incident, their doctors should not go to extremes to bring them back. 

If you are interested in being an organ donor and want to provide more specific instructions than the ones associated with your driver’s license, you can complete a form that outlines your wishes.

If you have concerns about how your estate will be managed if you become incapacitated or need to go into a nursing home, you can assign a pre-need guardian as well as a backup guardian. This person could be a family member, a trusted friend, or a professional guardian.

Having your essential medical paperwork in order not only simplifies the legal process, but also clarifies your wishes for your loved ones. They don’t have to guess what you might want, because they already know.

If you need help determining what medical documents you may need, managing a new diagnosis or a chronic health condition, or navigating the healthcare system, reach out to an expert health advisor.