Updating your legal documents

In prior Unclutterer posts we’ve written about the importance of being organized about estate planning. My attorney says that if you’re over 18 and own stuff, you’ll want a will. Some people will also benefit from having a trust.

And then there are living wills and other medical advance directives. These can indicate what medical interventions you want (and don’t want) and who you want to make medical decisions for you if you can’t make them yourself. Other documents may allow doctors and care facilities to share information about your medical condition with the people you specify. Similarly, financial powers of attorney can allow others to handle your finances if you’re unable to do so.

The specific documents required vary from state to state, so it’s wise to get legal advice as to what your state requires — or your country and locale, if you live outside the United States.

For the moment, let’s assume you’ve been more organized about your estate planning than the majority of people are, and you have all these documents created and signed. (If you don’t sign them, they are useless. Signatures may need to be witnessed or notarized.) Now, when did you last look at them and make revisions, if necessary?

I needed to deal with this recently as I prepared for surgery. The person I had designated as my primary agent in my advance health care directive is less available to serve in that role than when I first had the directive created, so I wanted to switch my primary and secondary agents. So I called my lawyer to have the document updated.

But when I reviewed the entire document with him, I saw more changes I wanted to make. In the years since he and I first drafted my directive, I’ve revised my opinions on some aspects of my possible medical care, and those needed to be reflected. They weren’t major changes, but I still feel better knowing my advance care directive now says exactly what I want it to, given how I feel today.

It might be obvious that you would want to review and update your estate documents and advance directives when you go through a major life change such as a marriage or divorce or when you move to a new state.

But you might also want to update your will if your relationship with anyone who is a named as a beneficiary, guardian, or agent has changed. Do you still feel close to all the people named as beneficiaries? Are the people named as your agents still able to serve? Elizabeth O’Brien wrote in MarketWatch about a man who named his wife as his agent, but she had developed dementia by the time he needed her services — which resulted in messy legal situation.

Also, your wishes regarding medical care may change over time, as mine did. Some of that is just due to the passing of time, since what you want when you’re young may not be the same as what we want when you’re older. Sometimes medical technology may change in such a way that new treatment options are available, which may affect your decisions. Sometimes changing religious beliefs may affect the medical care decisions you want to make.

Take some time every few years to review those legal documents, and make sure they still reflect your wishes.

2 Comments for “Updating your legal documents”

  1. posted by Sarah on

    Check out the coalition on Aging With Dignity’s material on Five Wishes. It’s an acceptable, legal Advanced Directive in many states, and is caring and considerate about how to lay all of that out.

  2. posted by Grace on

    Thanks for this post—what an important suggestion. Life moves along, and we haven’t stopped to evaluate how changes would impact documents we signed before we were married 8 years ago! I’ve also suggested to my husband that we need to share passwords to separate bank accounts, bills we each pay separately, even our computers & phones! (Still haven’t done that–maybe tomorrow after I go through that stack of magazines & papers that’s been sitting there!)

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