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Having the right legal documents can help your family when you are gone

Dear Savvy Senior: What kinds of legal documents do I need to prepare to help my family after I’m gone? I would like to get my affairs in order but could use some help. — Almost 75

Dear Almost: Every adult — especially seniors — should have at least four essential legal documents to protect yourself and your family. These documents will make sure your wishes regarding your estate are legal and clear, and will help minimize any conflicts and confusion with your family and your health care providers if you become seriously ill or when you die. Here are the key documents you need, along with some tips to help you create them.

Will: This document lets you spell out your wishes of how you’d like your property and assets distributed after you die, whether it’s to family, friends or a charity. It also allows you to designate an executor to ensure your wishes are carried out and allows you to name guardians if you have dependent children.

In addition to a will, if you own real estate or have considerable assets, another option you might want to consider is a revocable living trust. This functions like a will but allows your estate to avoid the time and expense of probate (the public legal process that examines your estate after you die) and helps ensure your estate’s privacy.

Durable power of attorney: This allows you to designate someone you trust to handle your financial matters if you become incapacitated.

Advanced health care directive: This includes two documents that spell out your wishes regarding your end-of-life medical treatment. The two documents are a “living will,” which tells your doctor what kind of care you want to receive if you become incapacitated, and a “health care power of attorney” (or health care proxy), which names a person you authorize to make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re unable.

You should also consider making a do-not-resuscitate order (DNR) as part of your advance directive, since advanced directives do little to protect you from unwanted emergency care like CPR. To create a DNR, ask your doctor to fill out a state-appropriate form and sign it.

Do it yourself

If you have a simple estate and an uncomplicated family situation, there are do-it-yourself resources that can help you create all these documents for very little money. Some options to consider include Quicken WillMaker & Trust 2020 software (available at Nolo.com), which costs $90 and works with Windows and Macs and is valid in every state except Louisiana, and LegalZoom.com, which offers an estate plan with professional legal guidance with an independent attorney for $179.

Get help

If, however, you want or need assistance or if you have a complicated financial situation, blended family or have considerable assets, you should hire an attorney. An experienced lawyer can make sure you cover all your bases — especially when writing a will or living trust — which can help avoid family confusion and squabbles after you’re gone.

Costs will vary depending on where you reside, but you can expect to pay somewhere between $500 and $2,000 for a basic estate plan that includes a will, power of attorney and advance directive. If you want your estate plan to include a living trust, that can run anywhere between $1,500 and $5,000.

The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA.org) and the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils (NAEPC.org) are two good resources that have directories on their websites to help you find someone in your area.

If money is tight, check with your state’s bar association (see www.FindLegalHelp.org) to find low-cost legal help in your area. Or call the Eldercare Locater at 800-677-1116 for a referral.


Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.


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