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The 4 legal documents every adult should have

It’s all too easy to put off gettingyour legal paperwork in order. But when a major crisis hits — whether it’s an accident, illness, or death — it’s usually too late to start printing, signing, and notarizing forms. Here are the documents every adult needs now, so they’re ready if you require them later.

1. A will

Also known as: a last will and testament

A will is a legal document that details your final wishes about how to distribute your assets after death. In your will, you appoint an executor who will manage the distribution of your estate to your beneficiaries or heirs. A will is important even if you don’t have millions to pass on to your heirs: Who do you want to hold on to Great Aunt Sophie’s tea set or the family china? Who do you hope will take care of your pets or handle selling or passing along your house full of furniture? The will allows you to spell out all of that. And this vital document is also where you’ll appoint a guardian to any minor children you may have.

Where to get a will: An attorney who specializes in estate planning in your state is the best place to obtain a will that’s customized to your exact situation. You can draft a will yourself or use a site like LegalZoom or Rocket Lawyer to create your own. But since laws governing wills can vary from state to state, if you draft the will yourself, it may be worth paying an attorney to review and tweak the document, which is typically cheaper than having someone draw it up from scratch.

Expert tip: “If you do not have a will, then the state you live in actually has a will for you, which are the default rules in that state for anyone who dies ‘intestate’ (without a will). Without a will, you cannot be certain that your property will end up where you want it to go after your death. There is also a good chance that your loved ones will incur more costs and spend more time dealing with your estate if you die intestate.” – Brian Tees, senior associate at Nance Simpson, L.L.P., in Houston, Texas

Read more: 5 questions to ask yourself before making a will

2. A living will

Also known as: an advance directive

Though the name overlaps with a last will and testament, a living will is actually quite different. This is a document that tells doctors, medical professionals, and family which treatments you want if you’re dying, permanently unconscious, or otherwise unable to make decisions about emergency care. It has nothing to do with age; adults of all ages can benefit from having these wishes spelled out.

In the living will, you select which procedures you would want performed and which you would not, as well as when your choices apply. Keep in mind the living will only goes into effect if you’re unable to speak for yourself.

Where to get a living will: Hiring an estate attorney in your state is the safest option for drawing up a living will because they will ensure it follows your state’s laws. If you can’t afford to hire a lawyer, you can find these documents and forms online. For example, Five Wishes provides a form ($5) that meets the legal requirements for advance directives in 42 states and Washington, D.C.

Expert tip:  “A living will/advanced directive (often confused with a ‘living trust’) is intended to communicate your wishes in the event you are unable to speak for yourself at such time as a medical decision is to be made on your behalf. Having been through the decision myself to remove a loved one from life support, I can tell you first-hand how important a living will can be. Living wills can vary from state to state, so it is important to have the correct document for your state.” – Brian Tees, senior associate at Nance Simpson, L.L.P., in Houston, Texas

3. Durable health care power of attorney

It appoints: a health care proxy

While a living will can include a comprehensive checklist about the types of treatments you’d like considered, it’s hard for a checklist to be fully comprehensive or interpret nuance. To that end, it’s vital to have a durable health care power of attorney. This legal document allows you to appoint a health care proxy who is empowered to talk to your doctors, access your health care information, and make medical decisions about your care, if you’re unable to do so yourself. A health care proxy is also charged with determining which hospital, medical facility, nursing home, or hospice center to send you to for care.

Forms to select a proxy vary from state to state. In general, the forms must be signed by two adult witnesses (not including your proxy) and should be shared with your health care providers and close family members. You should also carry it on your person, in case of medical emergency.

Where to get a durable health care power of attorney: It’s best to have an estate planning attorney in your state create a custom form for you to guarantee it meets your state’s legal requirements, but if you can’t afford it, you can pay less to download one on sites like LegalZoom or Rocket Lawyer.

Expert tip: “Every single person should have a health care power of attorney or health care proxy to appoint a person to make medical choices if you are unable to communicate your wishes. As the Terri Schiavo case famously illustrated many years ago, if one fails to put their health care wishes down in writing, they can leave a huge mess for their family!” – John B. Palley, California probate attorney with Meissner Joseph & Palley Inc. in Sacramento

4. Durable financial power of attorney

It appoints: an attorney-in-fact or agent

If you were hospitalized or otherwise unable to take care of your finances, who would pay your rent or mortgage? How would you make sure that incoming checks were deposited or your investments and property managed properly? A durable power of attorney allows you to appoint a person, known as an attorney-in-fact or agent, to govern your financial and personal affairs if you are unable to do so. (That’s different from a simple power of attorney, which allows someone to access and manage your financial accounts but doesn’t continue once you’re incapacitated.)

If you become incapacitated without this legal safeguard in place, your loved ones may have to slog through a costly and time-intensive court process to appoint a guardian or conservator to make financial and personal decisions on your behalf. It’s far quicker and easier to appoint an agent ahead of time. With a durable financial power of attorney, your agent will be able to step in and manage your money without getting the courts involved — and you can make sure that it’s someone you’ve selected yourself.

Where to get a durable financial power of attorney: It’s highly recommended to have an estate planning attorney create a customized document for your situation since some title companies and banks won’t accept general powers of attorney, Palley says. But if your budget won’t allow it, you can create a generic one on sites like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer.

Expert tip: “Every single person should have a durable financial powers of attorney and, in many cases, a living trust also. Both of these documents appoint a person to stand in your shoes to transact financial and quasi-financial decisions when you are unable to handle the business yourself.” – John B. Palley, California probate attorney with Meissner Joseph & Palley Inc. in Sacramento

Written by Kate Rockwood with contributed reporting from Emily Gerson.

The information in this article is intended to provide a general understanding of the law, not to act as legal advice