The untimely demise of Michael Jackson reminds us that even though we all know our time will come, we have no idea when it will be. There may be only a slim chance you could die suddenly at the young age Jackson did (50), but it's still a possibility. So every adult has a couple of things to do so their wishes will be followed. Even if you don't really care about what happens after you die, do them anyway, if for no other reason than to relieve the emotional distress that will be felt by your loved ones that you leave behind.

Here's what to do right now, regardless of your situation, so you keep calling the shots even after you're gone.

  1. Advanced Health Care Directive
    Some call this a living will, others call it a medical power of attorney. Regardless of what it's called, you need one. Why? Because you always run the risk of getting into a car accident, or some other accident, that will leave you unable to care for yourself. At that point, you can't tell anyone what you want to do, so someone else has to do it for you. If you don't have this document, your wishes may or may not be what actually occurs. In addition, the lack of clear wishes puts a horrible burden on the person that actually has to make a life and death decision. (For more, check out Letter Of Instruction - Don't Leave Life Without It.)

    This document will designate a person to make medical decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated. It specifies your wishes to accept or refuse resuscitation, life support, organ donation, and other types of care. Basically, its lets your physician, family and friends know your health care preferences and who will make decisions for you when you can't make them for yourself. In as fast as you can say, "Look out for that bus!", your life could hang in the balance. So get this done now.

  2. Will
    A last will and testament is simply a set of instructions that tells the world what your wishes were if you passed away. It will divvy up your property, declare an executor to close out your estate, and possibly contribute to a charity. But more important than how your possessions are dealt with is the declaration of guardianship if you have children. Without this document, your intentions for the care of your kids won't be known. Again, think car accident and get this done now. (What would happen if you were suddenly unable to manage your financial affairs? Preparation is the best protection The Importance Of Estate And Contingency Planning.)

    If you die without a will, it's called intestate or intestacy. The state will have control over your situation, and your loved ones can be sent into turmoil with in-fighting, lawyers and court fees. What's more, it's possible that without a will, any separate property you have may not go to your spouse, but rather be split between your spouse and other relatives.

  3. Beneficiaries
    Another thing you should check is the beneficiaries that you have listed on documents like your retirement plan and insurance policies, so that they transfer automatically. So, check to be sure the people listed are the ones you want and are still alive. Many people are shocked to find that they just inherited their ex-spouses retirement account. If you don't want to give your ex-spouse your retirement, then change the beneficiary because your will won't overrule it.

Doing the Paperwork
Although each state will be different, the forms that you can use to create these documents should be available from the state, probably the State Attorney General's office, or the State Bar Association, typically online free of charge. A quick web search should provide the forms for your state. In some cases, you may need a notary, but most people shouldn't have any difficulty understanding the basics and filling them out. Of course, if you have questions or a complicated situation, seek professional counsel.

Once complete, these documents should be kept where other papers that are likely to be accessed at the same time would be, such as a safety deposit box or home safe. Regardless, make sure to provide the location and access to those involved so they will know where to go and what to do if something happens.

Beyond these two things lurk a bevy of complicated legal maneuvers that can save your estate taxes and provide more complicated options. They may or may not be worthy of time, energy, and money. But saving taxes for your heirs can wait, these things can't. Your life, your kids' future, or both, may depend on it. (A store-bought will might not cut it - learn what you need to have in yours, see Six Estate Planning Must-Haves and Estate Planning Basics.)

Related Articles
  1. Professionals

    An Overview of Hybrid Long-Term Care Policies

    As the cost of managed care continues to rise a new breed of hybrid life insurance offers a reasonable level of protection at a far more affordable price.
  2. Investing

    Citi Borrowers' Home Equity Payments Poised to Rise

    Defaults could rise as Citigroup home equity borrowers who had been paying interest only are about to see monthly payments increase an average of 165%.
  3. Investing Basics

    Diversify with These Four Alternative Assets

    In times of market volatility, investors add alternative assets to their portfolios--highly illiquid, but profitable investments like art, land or precious metals.
  4. Investing Basics

    Use Private Equity Strategy to Invest

    Forget trying to be a great trader. Learn to invest like private equity firms for superior results.
  5. Home & Auto

    6 Neighborhood Red Flags

    There are some qualities you can’t discover about a neighborhood until after you’ve moved in. But there are ways to scout out red flags ahead of time.
  6. Professionals

    Charity or Retirement Saving: Which to Prioritize?

    Financial planners need to help clients with their financial goals but also support them in their philanthropic endeavours.
  7. Professionals

    How Legacy Planning Can Help Capture New Clients

    Don’t underestimate the importance of legacy planning with your clients—it could serve as method for you to create new business with any heirs.
  8. Professionals

    Tips for Retaining Your Client's Heirs

    It's a good idea to start working with your clients' children early on to forge relationships and hopefully continue to manage that wealth.
  9. Home & Auto

    5 Luxurious Ways to Boost Your Home's Resale Value

    Not all renovations are created equal. Here are five that are most likely to make a property appreciate (and be appreciated by househunters).
  10. Investing

    Soul Cycle vs. Planet Fitness

    How has the fitness industry's shift from multipurpose health clubs to specialized studios and budget gyms played out for SoulCycle and Planet Fitness?
  1. Are Cafeteria plans exempt from Social Security?

    Typically, qualified benefits offered through cafeteria plans are exempt from Social Security taxes. However, certain types ... Read Full Answer >>
  2. Can your insurance company cancel your policy without notice?

    In most states, an insurance company must give a policyholder written notice of at least 30 days before canceling a policy. ... Read Full Answer >>
  3. How do I calculate insurance premium tax?

    In the United States, consumers do not pay any additional tax on health insurance premiums. However, your insurance premiums ... Read Full Answer >>
  4. Can your insurance company drug test you?

    Insurance companies have the right to require drug tests for health insurance and life insurance policies, but not all of ... Read Full Answer >>
  5. What is the difference between a peril and a hazard?

    The two related terms "peril" and "hazard" are often used in reference to the insurance industry. Essentially, a peril is ... Read Full Answer >>
  6. Can I put my IRA in a trust?

    You cannot put your IRA in a trust while you are living. You can, however, name a trust as the beneficiary of your IRA and ... Read Full Answer >>

You May Also Like

Trading Center
You are using adblocking software

Want access to all of Investopedia? Add us to your “whitelist”
so you'll never miss a feature!