A while back, a mutual friend of the Bitches unexpectedly found themselves in the ICU. They were very young, very healthy, and due to be married to their deeply devoted partner within weeks. They were unconscious and totally incapacitated, and needed someone to make healthcare decisions on their behalf.
The funny thing about engagements is that they aren’t legally binding. So even though their fiancé absolutely knew their wishes better than anyone, all medical decisions reverted to their mother. I should say: the alcoholic, emotionally abusive mother they’d moved thousands of miles to escape from.
Maybe you’re one of those lucky people with a spouse, or living parents, who understand and agree with your decisions 100% of the time. But maybe you’re like our friend above, and your default healthcare advocate according to the law is dangerous, untrustworthy, or completely out-of-touch with your wishes and values. Failing to plan for unforeseeable medical emergencies can put your body and your life into the hands of someone who you don’t trust.
And that is a very, very scary situation.
Decisions, legally binding decisions…
“Can we perform this risky surgery to preserve his cognitive functioning?” “Can we abort the fetus to save her life?” “Should we amputate this limb to give her a better chance at a full recovery?” “How long would he want to be kept alive by machines and feeding tubes?” “Who does she want to take custody of her children?”
These are the kinds of questions someone may need to answer one day—about you.
Of all the billions of people on the planet, there are exactly three people I would trust to referee this shit for me. None of them were designated to do so for the first quarter century of my life. So it’s a good thing that bus never hit me!
More fun stories of medical catastrophes:
- Financial Lessons Learned from a Night in the ER
- I Think I Need to Go to the Emergency Room?
- Dafuq Is Insurance and Why Do You Even Need It?
- You Must Be This Big to Be an Emergency Fund
In the event of a catastrophe, do you want your extra-religious parents to get a say in how long you can be kept on life support? Do you want your abusive soon-to-be-ex spouse to get full custody of your children? How do you feel about your homophobic family members having the ability to lock your partner out of your finances? Do you want your children taking each other to court because of a disagreement over what to do with your body?
… Yeah, I thought not.
Our most essential human freedom is the right to control our own bodies, and have our decisions regarding them respected. The best way to ensure that happens is to write your wishes down in a legal document and to make sure that legal document can be found in a crisis.
1. Living will
Cost: $15 through TotalLegal, or FREE through DoYourOwnWill
If you are unable to express informed consent to medical procedures, a living will (also known as a healthcare directive or an advance directive) speaks for you. It covers some of the most sensitive and controversial areas of medicine, like resuscitation, mechanical ventilation, tube feeding, palliative care, and organ donation.
Even if you think you know what you want, a good living will will draw out unlikely situations that nevertheless deserve thought. For example, I chose to decline ventilators and feeding tubes if I am ill or injured to such an extent that meaningful recovery is impossible. “Cool, cool,” replied my living will, “but what if you’re pregnant at the time and the fetus isn’t yet viable?”
… Oh. Wow. I wouldn’t have thought of that.
Serious injury, illness, and death sometimes come on slowly, sometimes suddenly. If you are incapacitated and unable to make choices for yourself, you want your wishes and limitations respected, period. A living will allows you to do that.
TotalLegal offers a complimentary customized living will. It asks you questions—in plain language we Earth humans can understand!—about your wishes, then spits out a legally compliant document tailored to your state’s allowances and regulations. That is an amazing service. Take advantage of it now. A ten-minute investment may save you and your loved ones from confusion, disagreement, and anguish.
… or the plot of Knives Out.
For that matter, ain’t you ever read My Sister’s Keeper? Disagreements about this shit tears families apart. Don’t let the lunatics you’re related to play guess-and-check with your half-dead body!
2. Medical power of attorney
Cost: $20 through TotalLegal
Medical power of attorney, also known as the appointment of a healthcare proxy, is what would’ve saved our buddy in the intro story a lot of heartache. This legal document names someone that you trust to act as a decision-maker on healthcare issues. The living will covers broad attitudes and expectations. A healthcare proxy will be the person your doctors go to at each step of your treatment. The two documents, working in concert, give you the best possible chance to see your wishes enacted.
Before you list someone as your healthcare proxy, sit down with them and have a long and honest talk about your expectations. Don’t just default to your parents or your spouse. Take the time to establish that this person is a good fit for you. If you are an atheist who wants no extraordinary lifesaving measures taken and would donate your own body to science, maybe don’t ask your father, a devout Catholic, who’d like to see you kept alive by any means necessary and would bury you in the family plot behind the church after an open-casket funeral.
Don’t put anyone in a position where they have to do something they feel ethically conflicted about. And don’t pick someone who would be crushed by the responsibility. A friend or relative in the medical profession is a huge bonus. But it can literally be anyone you trust, so long as they’re over the age of eighteen.
3. Last will and testament
Cost: $20 through TotalLegal
Of all the legal documents, I actually think this one is the least important, because it mostly just covers your money and your junk. But Money N’ Junk was our second choice for the title of this blog.
Your last will and testament dictates what will happen to your estate—your money, your property, your minor children, and even your pets. You can designate one person (along with a backup or two) to be your executor. Again, it can be any legal adult! Piggy is the executor of her aunt’s estate. This is a duty she lords of her less responsible brother’s head every chance she gets.
The executor is the person who handles the administrative tasks of distributing the estate on the terms set forth in your will. They are not necessarily the person who receives the money. That person is your beneficiary (or beneficiaries). The executor is not usually paid. Not unless you make a special note to set aside a gift for them in exchange for their hard work. (Nudge nudge, do it! Estate management is hard work!)
The simplest way to divvy up your estate (and the method that requires less frequent updating) is to leave the division up to a trusted person who knows your heart. This person must be rock solid in their trustworthiness, and such people are rare—it’s probably your spouse or nobody. Another easy way is to divide everything equally among heirs, and don’t waste time divvying up individual items or properties.
Many will preparers will warn you that nasty feuds can start between family members and other heirs over things like heirlooms, antiques, jewelry, cars, and houses. They will advise you to avoid any confusion by listing those items out explicitly so that there can be no arguing. HOWEVER… I say those people are garbage people and deserve whatever miserable sniping and legal wrangling they see fit to begin. I call this a VVitch VVill! Think of it as a curse upon the petty people left behind. It’s a way to make your money work for you, even after death.
What to do with your personal legal documents
Once you have your documents, email a copy to each of the people mentioned within them. Make the subject line easily searchable for future emergencies.
For medical directives, send a copy to your doctor and ask them to include it with your medical records.
Finally, print a copy and keep it in a clearly-marked folder with all your other important paperwork. Make a point of telling multiple people where these documents exist. Especially if they live with you: your roommate, your best friend, your family members, your significant other or spouse. Don’t make people dig through your shit like it’s Hoarders.
If you can afford it, a small fireproof box or safe deposit box at a bank is a good idea.
A final (ha!) note on the price of end-of-life legal documents
There’s a reason all my recommendations are for TotalLegal. It’s not because they’ve given us money. ALTHOUGH THEY SHOULD. I HAVE CHICKENS TO FEED.
Many websites will offer you “free” legal paperwork. And after filling out a lengthy questionnaire, they prompt you to sign up for a monthly recurring “legal service on demand” to get your “free” documents. Don’t waste your day getting baited, switched, and scammed. Pick one affordable provider who is up-front about their prices (and doesn’t try to package it as a monthly service, a truly ridiculous premise). Just drop $40 on the above and rest easy that you’ve done it right.
… and spend whatever monthly fee they’re trying to squeeze out of you on our Patreon instead. You’re welcome.
An early version of this article was published in June, 2016.
18 thoughts to “3 Legal Documents You Need NOW and Where To Get Them Online for Cheap”
Hey Kitty, can I ask a follow up? The only reason I haven’t done a Money ‘n Stuff will is because 1) I don’t have kids/pets or own a home and 2) I’ve heard it can be very expensive to update these online-DIY-wills.
The other ones I’m doing tonight and then I’ll sleep better knowing they are done! 🙂
If you don’t have kids or pets or a house, it really comes down to what you DO have that’s either valuable, sentimental, or sensitive. If you have a car, that’s valuable. If you have your great grandmother’s rocking chair, that’s sentimental. If you have a hard drive with nudes on it, that’s sensitive. If you trust your default heirs with all three categories, then you can probably hold off. I wanted stuff to go to my little brother OR my then-boyfriend, not my parents (who were my default heirs), so I would’ve done it even without the pets. Also, if your default heirs are your parents AND they’re divorced, I would take that into consideration too… They would probably appreciate the clarity.
SO PROUD OF YOU. You are earning a big, big wine and/or ice cream tonight. Go do the things!! Go get the stuff!!
Hey I’ve got a question about the scenario you gave us at the start of the article: how did things end up turning out in the end?
Great question! I had more details in the article originally, but they became too identifying and also just way too dark! Basically our buddy came closer to death than any 27 year-old should. But happily she made a full recovery and was married in a rescheduled wedding later that year. Her mother had plenty of time to make what I’ll charitably call “poor choices” in the interim that made my friend and her fiancé feel helpless and violated. She gives the experience a 0/5 stars, does not recommend.
I put my rental house into a trust last summer since my legal next of kin is someone I haven’t spoke to in 17 years and never want to have anything to do with. It explicitly excludes him from anything in the trust. This weekend’s task is to go to TotalLegal and fill out the medical power of attorney form to make sure he isn’t the one anyone contacts for my medical well being (like, how would anyone find him though? I don’t know, I don’t want to take the chance)
I’m sorry your friend had to go through that experience, but I am glad to hear she made a full recovery.
I just moved overseas, and about 3 weeks before I left, my brain went: what if something happens? Cue frantic scrambling to get a living will, healthcare directive and POA in place. I went through a lawyer though, but I’m glad I have those in place. Main thing is that I don’t want my family wasting money to ship my body back home! Clearly outlined, non negotiable! There are better uses for their money.
An amazing experience for us moving to Denmark was when we enrolled in the national healthcare system—living wills, power of attorney, etc are all available online. You fill out the form digitally and upload. It takes less than ten minutes and there are no lawyers involved.
FYI the living will is no longer free through TotalLegal. It’s now $14.95.
Anywhere that does free living will now that Total Legal charges the 15.95?
As someone who had to care for my mom when she had a stroke and became incapacitated, I’ve had so much stuff piled up from her death that I keep putting aside doing this for myself. Then this morning, there it is in my inbox from your email, a reminder that it’s time! I’m glad I finally filled this out for my husband’s sake, so that should anything happen, he’ll have an easier time with legal matters than I did. I also encourage people to make sure their parents have these in place, especially if they become disabled.
Check your employee benefits too! My company had legal forms for free through the wellness portal (including all of these and leases and so many others). It was buried deep, but there. My spouse got discounted hourly legal assistance through their union. And our library offers an estate planning seminar every quarter. There are lots of resources for this very important stuff.
Great suggestions, but……
I am not the target market of your blog. I’m a geezer who really admires what you do, and as your “Patreon Grandmother” I wish to support you and your excellent work.
My fear is that if you pay peanuts you will get monkeys. My wife is an estate lawyer. After 40 years as a lawyer she is truly at the top of her game. I hear many stories from her about problems with wills and other documentation, and these include documents prepared by lawyers who are not specialists in the area. She charges $750 + tax for basic wills and powers of attorney. Prices go up from there for more complicated estates.
Is free or next to free better than nothing? I can only give a qualified “maybe”. Over my nearly 40 years in business I have determined that quality legal and accounting work doesn’t cost, it pays. I would strongly recommend choosing a specialist estate lawyer and paying the fee to get proper advice and quality work.
If someone doesn’t have $800 then it doesn’t matter how good your wife is at her job.
I’m so glad y’all are putting this stuff out there – it really is very important, can avoid some nasty surprises like your friend dealt with, and something I work with my clients on often.
My only suggestion is that folks Do Not put their estate documents in a bank safe deposit box. Especially if they don’t have a spouse or family member who is also authorized to access that box. It is incredibly difficult for family, spouses, friends, whomever you chose to get access to your safe deposit box even if they have a power of attorney (which the original is probably the IN the safety deposit box and therefore part of the problem since that’s what the bank wants to see!). So if you don’t want your loved ones to have to fight the bank through the courts on that for who knows how long to open the box and get those documents, I would suggest they go with the fireproof box at home instead.
I was just scrolling down to leave this exact comment. A friend’s mother passed away recently. Her mother had a will but had stored it in a safe deposit box. It was a major headache and caused a lot of deal to pull that will from the box. Meanwhile, nothing else could move, the house couldn’t be rented or sold, the bank accounts to pay utility bills etc couldn’t be accessed. It was a nightmare.
This is good timing for me because I have been procrastinating HARD on updating my will from 2020. I have been using Quicken Willmaker which is like $150 or some BS. The software sucks and you have to buy it each year! Thanks for the recommendation, I will definitely look into TotalLegal.
I would also like to add that in many states your executor will need the ORIGINAL will rather than a copy to get some things done. I worked for an attorney (in Tennessee) who did estate documents and not having the original was always a problem, specifically when trying to file with the courts. For the Living Will and Power of Attorney, medical providers generally accept copies or electronic documents.