Important legal documents you’ll need for your aging parents

African Americans in particular are ill-prepared when it comes to estate planning.

Let’s face it; your parents are getting on in years, you need to anticipate questions about their health care and make sure you have legal documentation in order that will address those issues. African Americans, in particular, are ill-prepared when it comes to estate planning. According to Black Enterprise, an astounding 70 percent have no will or estate plan in place! The lack of an estate plan is one of several factors that lead to the loss of land in the African American community.

Perhaps it’s the lack of time, money, or the belief that things will sort themselves out eventually, the vast majority of our parents have not taken all of the legal planning steps that are needed. In fact, many haven’t even completed the first step: gather important legal documents.

Keep in mind that an unorganized medical and financial estate without legal documents will only burden us, our parent’s survivors. We might even have to face huge legal bills, unforeseen taxes, or crazy family disputes because our parents left their estate in such disarray.

Here are a few of the documents that will be needed to secure your loved one’s wishes and give you peace of mind. Just FYI, state laws vary, so find out about the rules, requirements, and forms used in your state.

Will and Testament: A legal document that specifies which individuals, charities, or organizations will receive your parent’s possessions upon their death. A will can be written without an attorney involved.

Living Will (Medical directive): It is a written document that states the individual’s wishes for the end of life. There is some controversy around these documents and not all hospitals recognize them as legal and binding. However, they do inform physicians and other providers about the individual’s wishes that are being carried out by the health care proxy. You can find a living will document at the U.S. Advance Care Plan Registry. The legally binding document should include detailed directions regarding matters such as resuscitation, invasive life-sustaining measures, pain relief, antibiotics, and more. This can make it easier for family members to make tough health care decisions for their loved ones.

Durable power of attorney for finances: Designates who has authority to make all financial transactions (pay bills and taxes, manage investments, buy insurance, pay for medical care or liquidate assets) on a loved one’s behalf if they’re no longer able to; many financial institutions have an internal process you must follow to designate powers of attorney, so you’ll want to check with yours.

Medical Proxy/Power of Attorney for Health Care: A power of attorney for health care document assigns a “medical proxy” to make medical decisions if a loved one is unable to. Those may include: consenting to or refusing any care, procedure or treatment, making arrangements for hospitalization or psychiatric treatment; managing access to medical records; and deciding to move your parents to long-term care.

This power of attorney should include what’s known as a “HIPAA Release,” which will grant you access to your folks’ medical records and give you the ability to discuss their care with their doctors.

Revocable living trust:  A living trust allows folks to manage their assets in their name as long as they can do so. The word “revocable” means the trust can be changed. The trust comes into play when your parents are well and able to control their assets. But the trust names a “successor trustee” who can take over managing the assets in case of reduced mental faculties or death.

Out-of-Hospital Do Not Resuscitate Order (OOHDNR): This document signals to emergency responders and non-hospital medical providers that your loved one wishes to forgo specific life-saving procedures such as CPR, breathing tubes, and artificial ventilation.

Long-term Care Plan and Insurance Policy: Including these documents with medical records helps family members plan for the next steps, whether it be assisted living or long-term residential rehabilitation and therapy after a medical event.

Finally: Do make sure to put away these legal documents in a safe, secure place that at least one or more family member or a trusted friend has easy access to. Check each year to see if there’s anything new to add. Discuss your end-of-life preferences with your doctor. Your physician can explain what health decisions you may have to make in the future and what treatment options are available. Talking with your doctor can help ensure your wishes are honored.

You may want to talk with a lawyer about setting up your legal documents. Be sure to inquire about the legal fees involved upfront so that there aren’t any surprises after the dust settles.

You should be able to find a directory of local lawyers at your library, or you can contact your local bar association for lawyers in your area. Your local American Bar Association can also help you find what free legal aid options your state has to offer.