2. Make a Living Will and Assign a Health Care Proxy
Health care proxies (also called durable medical powers of attorney) deal with medical issues that arise while you’re alive but unable to make decisions (for instance, if you are unconscious). Living wills, on the other hand, usually deal with end-of-life decisions. Both are important.
Being married doesn’t automatically mean that you will have the final word on your spouse's health care or vice versa. (Think about the awful Terri Schiavo situation in Florida: After she spent years spent in a persistent vegetative state, Schiavo’s husband and her parents were in court fighting over her care.) And in most places, if you aren’t married, you have no rights regarding a partner’s medical decisions at all.
My partner died so suddenly that having a health care proxy wouldn’t have made a difference in my specific situation. But as his sudden death showed me, life-altering events can strike at any time and you shouldn’t wait for a specific event like a pregnancy, scheduled surgery, or the onset of a disease to do this. So before you put this on the back burner, ask yourself if you really want your parents or your partner’s parents (or the state!) making serious medical calls. If not, put it in writing.
3. Buy Life insurance
My partner and I were working on this before he died. I had a policy from work, and at my partner’s urging, we met with a broker to get additional life insurance. My policy came through without a problem, but the insurance company requested more information from him. Unfortunately, he didn’t get around to providing this before he died. As a result, we didn’t get any insurance payout. You know what I learned from this? Always follow up.
4. Assign a Digital Power of Attorney
As more and more of our lives become virtual, having a digital power of attorney (POA) is becoming increasingly important. That’s because you don’t own your digital assets in the same way you own your physical property. Some things we think we own (like photos we post on Facebook) may not actually belong to us once they’re put online. A digital POA assigned in a legally binding document gives you a better shot at having all your digital money, digital assets, digital IP, and social media accounts left to your beneficiaries. Luckily, my partner was working with my uncle, who shared access to his professional website and bank account. But for a lot of families, especially for those who have an online business presence, being locked out of a digital life can be catastrophic.
5. Get Access
After my partner’s death, I realized that our privacy around our passwords and PINs was actually a real problem. At one point I became desperate to find a photo of him and the kids on his computer, but I couldn’t access it since the computer was password protected. Thanks to some serious sleuthing I eventually managed to crack the code. That was a huge relief, but I still had no access to things like bills that were in his name, our Netflix account, or any of his online profiles.
Sharing passwords is personal and it simply isn’t right for some couples. One option is to use a service like Legacy Locker, which can securely hold on your passwords until your death and then release them to the people you designate. You might also want to come up with a shared password for benign things like your Amazon and utility accounts. At the very least, you should know the location of each other’s official documents, like birth certificates, marriage certificates, and SSN cards. You also should be on top of any financial information, bank accounts, mortgages, credit cards, or investments that you hold jointly. This is especially true if you don’t manage many (or any) of the finances in your partnership.
Imagining you or your partner dying young can make you anxious and uncomfortable, and planning for something that seems so unlikely is not always on the top of our lists. But ignoring the fact that it’s possible will only make your situation that much worse if the unthinkable happens. Getting just a few things in order can make a world of difference.
Originally from Canada, Ellen Friedrichs is a health educator (and mom) based in New York City, where she teaches high school and college classes, is a contributing writer at everydayfeminism.com, and runs About.com’s LGBT Teens website. Find more of her writing here and follow her on Twitter @ellenkatef.