Important Legal Documents

What legal documents do I need to prepare to help my family after I am gone? I would like to get my affairs in order but could use some help.

There are four essential legal documents to consider including in your estate plan. These documents will make sure your wishes regarding your estate are legally enforceable and clear. It may also help minimize any conflicts and confusion with your family. Proper documentation can assist your health care providers if you become seriously ill or pass away. Here are the key documents you need, along with some tips to help you create them.

Will: This document lets you spell out your wishes of how you would like your property and assets to be distributed after you pass away, whether it is to family, friends or a charity. It also allows you to designate an executor to ensure your wishes are carried out and allows you to name guardians if you have dependent children.

In addition to a will, if you own real estate or have considerable assets, another option you may want to consider is a revocable living trust. This functions like a will but allows your estate to avoid the time and expense of probate (the public legal process that examines your estate after you pass away) and helps ensure your estate’s privacy.

Durable Power of Attorney: This allows you to designate someone you trust to handle your financial matters if you become incapacitated.

Advanced Health Care Directive: This includes two documents that spell out your wishes regarding your end-of-life medical treatment. The two documents are a “living will,” which tells your doctor what kind of care you want to receive if you become incapacitated, and a “health care power of attorney” (or health care proxy), which names a person you authorize to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are unable.

You may also consider including a do-not-resuscitate order (DNR) as part of your advance directive, since advanced directives do little to protect you from unwanted emergency care like CPR. To create a DNR, ask your doctor to fill out a state appropriate form and sign it.

Get Help

Hiring an attorney to draft an estate plan to ensure it is enforceable and executed properly according to state law is advisable. It is highly recommended to hire an attorney, if you want or need assistance or if you have considerable assets, a complicated financial situation or a blended family. An experienced lawyer can make sure you cover all your bases – especially when writing a will or living trust – which can help avoid family confusion and squabbles after you are gone.

Costs will vary depending on where you reside, but you can expect to pay somewhere between $500 to $2,000 for a basic estate plan that includes a will, power of attorney and advance health care directive. If you want your estate plan to include a living trust, that can run anywhere between $1,500 to $5,000.

The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys ( and the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils ( are two good resources that have directories on their websites to help you find someone in your area.

If costs are a concern, check with your state’s bar association (see to find low-cost legal help in your area. You may also call the Eldercare Locater at 800-677-1116 for a referral.

Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living" book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization's official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.


Published March 13, 2020

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