In Case of Emergency

This weekend two of my friends had medical emergencies. One of them is still unconscious in a neurological ICU following a motorcycle accident. This has, as you might imagine, left his family in a terrible place, and his wife is having to put together pieces of their life that were left scattered on a highway.

Want to help? Then please, please consider the following suggestions.

Make a living will. Do you want to refuse medical treatment if you’re in a persistent vegetative state? Do you want any and all treatment possible? More importantly, do you want family and friends to have to guess at what you’d want or, worse, fight about it like Terri Schiavo’s family? A living will lets you set out, in a legally binding document, what your wishes are while you can still express them. For the US, Nolo has more information about living wills. Five Wishes is a popular living will, though it requires extra paperwork to be legally binding in eight states, including Alabama. The Lifecare Advanced Directive is excellent but takes time to work through.

Create a durable power of attorney for health care. Your living will won’t be able to cover all hypothetical situations, which means someone’s going to have to make those decisions for you. Choose your health care agent ahead of time, document your choice in a durable power of attorney document, and talk about your wishes with that person. Start with Nolo’s article on selecting a health care agent. The Five Wishes and Lifecare Advanced Directive include a section on designating a health care agent.

Make a will or a trust. If you’ve got assets like a house, bank accounts, or retirement accounts, designate what happens to them if you should die. If you have children, here’s where you appoint someone to take care of them. You can work with a lawyer to draw up a will or trust, or use software like Quicken WillMaker.

Add an ICE entry to your cell phone. “In Case of Emergency” entries on your cell can bolster more traditional methods of identification and can help hospitals contact family members.

Write down your passwords. Chances are you’ve got several computers and accounts that someone would need access to in times of trouble. If you use a password-keeper like 1Password, write down your master password. Put the list where people can get to it in an emergency.

Get a small fire safe, one that’s about the size of a bulky briefcase. The intent isn’t to protect your documents from thieves, but to protect documents against fire or flood and to give someone a one-stop place to go for documents they’ll need. Make copies of the safe key and give them to someone you can trust. And get some dessicant, like the little bags of silicon beads, to keep humidity down in the safe.

Distribute your documents. It’s best to store your original will and similar documents in a bank’s safe deposit box, but those can be hard to get access to in emergency situations. Send copies of your will, living will, and durable power of attorney for health care to your executors and family members. Put copies in your fire safe. Passwords, a list of insurance policies (if any), and information on bank accounts and similar documents go in the fire safe.

Update these documents once a year. Every January, crack open the fire safe and make sure all of the information is still up to date. Anything that isn’t needs to be changed.

Doing all of this is a task that’s easy to put off. Don’t. Spend some time this month getting your affairs in order. Those around you will be thankful later.

5 thoughts on “In Case of Emergency

  1. An addition to this: in any power of attorney, get a carte blanche provision to have your HIPPA rights waived to a pre-determined list of people if you are unable to communicate this desire.

  2. Thanks for the reminder, Doc. I did this last year when I had my surgery, but things have certainly changed. I’m married now and I have two new daughters to think about. It’s definitely time to update everything.
    It’s a shame that it took something like this to remind us about the basic things we should be doing. I can’t stop thinking about both of them and how devastated I would be if I were in Amy’s shoes. Please give both of them a hug from the Moody family when you see them. I will definitely be sending postcards to decorate Jeff’s wall.

  3. Couple of more things – Don’t forget that depending on the state you live in, you have to get these things notarized.
    Check to see if your local hospitals will put these things in a file for you should you need them. It never hurts to ask.

  4. Dana: Will do. And thanks for the reminder about getting the docs notarized. Our credit union offers notarization to members, which is where I got our will and all notarized.

  5. I echo Geof’s suggestion on HIPAA rights. The medical community has been forced to be very strict about those rights, to the point that some of them won’t tell your wife why you are in the ER without an authorization. Also, there are many state-law nuances involved in drafting wills. In Arkansas, you have to have witnesses with self-proving affidavits notarized, in addition to your own signature. I haven’t reviewed the form wills available on-line, but I’d use a lawyer in your state who specializes in probate matters. They probably have a lot of specialized knowledge that would make several aspects of probate much easier for your family.

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