The coronavirus pandemic is bringing everyone’s vulnerability into sharp focus, especially if you don’t have a living will or health care proxy.

Yes, the risk of hospitalization is higher for people over a certain age and those with ‘comorbidities.’ (That’s a word we all just learned, which means having multiple underlying health issues.)

But this virus can touch people of all ages and health conditions. And while most of us may get by with mild or moderate symptoms, if any, some of us may find ourselves headed to an emergency room with little time to plan.

We would all do well – whether we see this pandemic as a personal risk or not – to heed the wake-up call it brings.

The message? We should all be ready at all times with two critical documents in place if we want our preferences and desires to be followed in case we are ever hospitalized. You could call them your ‘just-in-case’ documents.

So, what are my just-in-case documents?

These documents fall under the umbrella of ‘advance directives.’ They do not deal with financial or other legal matters. They focus specifically on medical issues and include some combination of a living will and a health care proxy.

You will want to keep them updated if you change your mind about anything. And copies should be kept in at least two places: (1) in with all your other legal and medical documents, and (2) in the hands of the person whose responsibility it will be to see they are enforced.

Ideally, your doctor should also have copies in your medical records.

What does each document do?

A living will. A living will specifies all the medical treatments you want to be provided to you – or not – at the end of your life, most notably regarding life-support treatments. It is used if you are incapacitated, unlikely to recover from an illness or in a coma.

You have to create and sign a living will yourself when you are of sound mind.

A health care proxy. A health care proxy goes by lots of names: Medical Power of Attorney, Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care, Health Care Agent, Health Care Power of Attorney, among others. This document designates the person you have entrusted to make health care decisions on your behalf when you are no longer able to make them yourself. That includes enforcing your living will.

You have to create and sign a health care proxy yourself when you are of sound mind. The person you designate – your health care agent – should know you, your values, beliefs and desires well enough to be able to help you get the medical care and treatment you want.

This designation often avoids disagreements among well-intentioned family members. However, designating a health care agent grants extensive powers to that person. Choose him or her wisely. 

Where do I get the forms for the documents I need?

Health, legal and end-of-life resources vary state-by-state. The popular website Everplans provides a resource where you can click on your state to find out (and download for free) the exact forms that hold legal sway in your state. Or contact a local estate planning attorney.

What about today makes things different?

Today we are dealing globally with a contagious virus. If you are hospitalized, family members will likely not be accompanying you or staying with you as you are treated.

Now, more than ever, you want to have a card attached to your insurance card or your ID in your wallet that provides contact information for your trusted health care agent.

As financial advisors, our first priority is preparing you for all your financial decisions. And, in these extraordinary times, we want to help you be ready for all other aspects of your life as well.

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