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2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider

Consider setting up a living will and a durable power of attorney for healthcare.

I had E. coli once, years ago. (Reader, it was not fun.) I was shopping at a clothing store, which, very luckily, was just blocks from my in-network hospital, because all of a sudden I had stomach cramps that felt like knife stabs. I must have fainted because the next thing I remember was an EMT asking me a bunch of questions.

One of the questions she asked: "Do you have a living will or a medical power of attorney?"

I didn't. I wasn't really even sure what those things were, but I figured they were things I didn't need to know about in my 20s, when I was single with no kids. As it turns out, though, living wills and durable power of attorney for healthcare are two things that single people might especially want to give some thought to.

What Is a Living Will? A living will, or advance medical directive, is a legal document that outlines your wishes for life-sustaining treatment. It's a document you sign when you're of sound mind, stating whether you wish to be removed from artificial ventilation, intravenous feeding and hydration, and so on, in the event that you become terminally ill and incapacitated.

It's not really something I or anyone else wants to think about. It's sort of like the organ donation box on my driver's license: If there's really no chance to revive me, at least put my working body parts to good use. Similarly, if I am on life support with no hope of getting better, I would want my loved ones to avoid the expense and emotional strain of keeping me alive artificially.

What Is a Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare? Like a living will, a durable power of attorney for healthcare is a legal document that appoints an agent to make healthcare decisions on your behalf if you are unable to make them yourself. Here's the reason it matters even more than a living will, in my opinion: The durable power of attorney for healthcare can be your voice in situations where you are not necessarily terminally ill, but you are incapacitated.

Find someone you trust enough to act on your behalf when you are unable to. Tell this person exactly how you feel about blood transfusions, organ transplants, disclosure of your medical information, and more. When this person is someone other than a legal spouse it can be difficult for doctors to determine who the decision-maker is among your relatives and friends. A legally designated durable power of attorney should eliminate ambiguity.

What Else Do I Need to Know? These two documents aren't a comprehensive estate plan. Singles should periodically make sure that the beneficiary designations on their checking and retirement accounts are up to date and appropriate. Also think about life insurance needs (especially if you have children and/or a mortgage). Finally, a living will has nothing to do with a will that ensures your property is distributed after your death in accordance with your wishes; for that, you need to draft a separate legal document with the help of an attorney.

But what these documents can do is help ensure that in a healthcare emergency, any medical and financial decisions made on your behalf are in line with what you really want. Note that state laws differ with respect to how a living will and durable power of attorney for healthcare work. It's best to talk to an estate-planning attorney in your state to get definitive answers to your questions.

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