What Happens if Something Happens to You?

Everyone should have a durable power of attorney—a legal instrument that tells adults who may have to step in on your behalf what you want.  Powers of Attorney are needed for the unexpected—accidents, life threatening illnesses, paralyzing strokes and weird events that occur in society that no one wants to happen to them and their loved ones.  But, they do happen, and they happen every day. 

Consider the news in my morning paper— it’s a heartbreaking story of a young mother who went to the hospital to give birth to her second son.  Normally, a joyous event for family and friends.  This turned into a family feud. 

The mother experienced an extremely rare blood problem at the birth and went into a coma after the doctors pumped over three times her normal blood amount into her via transfusions.  The woman went from critical to a vegetative state in a fairly short period of time.   

Enter the family.  The husband was in shock.  They had been married less than a year.  He kept praying for a miracle and wanted to keep her alive.  Her sisters wanted to pull the plugs and cease tube-feeding her.  Eventually the court was involved.  The woman was only 40 years old.  She died after 8 months of being kept alive. 

What Should You Do? 

First of all, determine who you truly trust, someone who will act as your “voice” in an emergency—a backup if you can’t function, are in an accident or become very ill suddenly.  This person can be your spouse, friend, adult child, or a parent.  Talk to them about the unexpected.  What do you want done to maintain your life?  Do everything possible, no expense spared?  Pull all the plugs if your medical team declares you in a vegetative state?  Somewhere in between?  What? 

I promise you, they won’t relish your discussion, but it’s one that you will never regret initiating.  Tell them what you want done if you become incapacitated in any way.  If they are willing, give them your power of attorney now. In writing. Your age doesn’t matter—everyone needs this backup. 

Health Care

For health care, you need a special form.  It will vary from state to state.  You can drop by any hospital and pick up a healthcare durable power of attorney packet that’s right for your state.  Or you can write to Choice in Dying, 200 Varick Street, 10th floor, New York, NY  10014-4810 or call 800-989-9455 for a packet for your state to be sent to you.  It’s free. The website is choices.org. 

It’s a good idea to name two stand-ins for you, one may not be around if any accident occurs and a critical decision has to be made.  It can be a family or non-family member (and sometimes it’s a smart thing to have a non-member involved—when tragedy strikes, emotions ride high.

To avoid any inaction or delay, either one should be able to act alone on your behalf.   

living will should also be completed.  It expresses what medical treatments you want (and don’t want) in case of a life-threatening emergency.  You can find information online, pick up forms in a stationary story, and hire an attorney to draw one up, even buy a book to help you out.  If married or have a partner, he or she should do the same.   

Make sure your personal physician, spouse and family members know what your druthers are.  Give a copy to each of your signed documents and any time you make changes, update copies to them as well. 

If you aren’t sure what you want done if you become incapacitated, you can create a springing power of attorney.  It only comes to life if you become disabled and can’t act for yourself.  Your springing power of attorney will define what that means.  It will read something like this: 

I shall be deemed disabled when two physicians licensed to practice medicine in my state sign a document stating that I am disabled and unable to handle my personal affairs.  If this happens, _________, my spouse, will handle my affairs.  When two physicians licensed to practice medicine in my state sign a document stating that I am able to handle my affairs again, ___________ (name you used to handle your affairs) will no longer serve as my power of attorney. 

A durable power of attorney is really another form of insurance and should be reviewed every four to five years.  If you decide that you want to change it, including the person who would act on your behalf, inform them, both verbally and in writing. Destroy whatever copies you had made previously and substitute new ones. 

Your Money $mart Tip

Hospitals routinely request that you complete a durable power of attorney if you are admitted.  This is one of the records that you want to review annually to make sure it says exactly what your intent is.