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Telling Tips is a series of articles from local experts to help you save money, make better decisions and plan for a better future.

Last Thursday’s headline in the New York Daily News was “Let Me Die.” The story concerns Grace Sung Eun Lee, who is paralyzed from the neck down, on life support, and wants to have her breathing tubes removed [Ed. – Updated reports indicate that Ms. Sung Eun Lee now wishes to remain on life support]. In 1998 there was another case of a woman on prolonged life support, Terri Schiavo; and before that, Karen Ann Quinlan, a New Jersey 21-year-old.

The point is that we all need certain legal documents beginning at the age of emancipation. As most people have more contact with their tax preparer than they have with their attorney, I think it is part of the accountant’s job to make a few suggestions every year. Here are a few of mine:

Medical Directives

What are your wishes should you become terminally ill, or permanently unconscious, and cannot make your own medical decisions? You need to give detailed instructions as to your wishes. This directive may be a health care proxy, a medical directive, or a living will.

The Health Care Proxy: The power of attorney allows another to act as your agent in financial decisions. For example, if I needed to represent you at the IRS, I would need a power of attorney. A health care proxy is the same, except that it is for medical treatment. It gives another the legal authority to communicate your wishes, if you become incapacitated. Further, if you regain the ability to act for yourself, the health care proxy reverts into a dormant state. Here’s a NY State Health Care Proxy form (PDF).

Appointing An Agent: The agent should be a person that you trust will follow your instructions, especially if the members of you family see medical treatment differently than you do. So if you are in favor of life-sustaining treatment, you may not want to appoint your ex-spouse (although your spouse or family members may wish to follow your instructions, at a critical time, they may have a change of heart.) The original health care proxy should be kept by the agent, with a copy in your records, and another with your physician.

Medical Directives: The medical directive can be part of the health care proxy, and states the type of care you want. It may give detailed direction as to what to do if you are in a coma — refuse or remove life support, do everything to keep life going — or it may be broad medical directives.

Living Wills: A living will gives instructions in instances of terminal illness, coma, or a vegetative state. It is not necessarily a substitute for the other legal documents noted above. It only takes effect upon your incapacity, and may be changed at any time. It states your desires about life-sustaining treatment under what type of conditions.

More Directives You May Wish To Consider

Will: You can decide to leave your possessions to those you love, or you can let the state make your decisions. And then there was the lady without family who played the lottery, won $1,000,000, had a heart attack, and died. A neighbor had been taking care of her for years, without compensation. Who was the beneficiary of the money? Answer: the state.

Financial Durable Power Of Attorney: This document allows your family access to your bank accounts to pay your bills and make decisions concerning your finances.

Children: If both you and your spouse are no longer around to care for your children, who will be your choice of a guardian? Your parents? Probably not. They’re not as young as they were, and to care for another child through college again may be too hard. Who can afford another child(ren)? You should think about this now. If you don’t decide, an independent judge will do it for you.

Pets: Who will take care of your pet if you are not here? The ASPCA? Your faithful companion locked in a cage? Think about it.

I’m a tax preparer, not an attorney, and I do not purport to give legal advice. However, I suggest these important documents to new parents, new graduates, newlyweds, and new home buyers, as well as the newly single. You’ve heard the horror stories. Don’t be one yourself.

Quip: There are worse things than getting a call for a wrong number at 4:00 a.m. — like, it could be the right number.

Have a good week.

Joseph Reisman, of Joseph S. Reisman & Associates, has been serving tax prep and business accounting expertise from his Coney Island Avenue office for more than 25 years. Check out the firm’s website.

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