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A Silver Lining in the Schiavo Story

If the tragic story of Terri Schiavo has any silver lining, it's that her plight may prevent other families from enduring a similarly prolonged moral, legal, and emotional agony.

Since 1990, the Florida woman has been kept alive -- in a persistent vegetative state -- since suffering from severe brain damage caused by heart failure. Her husband, Michael, has said she would not have wanted to be kept alive by artificial means, but her parents dispute that.

Whatever your views on right-to-die legislation and the legal action swirling around Terri's fate, the Schiavo story sets the groundwork for having that difficult discussion with your loved ones -- the discussion about your wishes, should you be incapable of expressing them on your own.

But a conversation is not enough. Verbal contracts are not binding if other parties are involved. and that's why you need a few important documents.

Living will (advance medical directive)
This is a document that says you want the right to die a natural death, free of all costly, extraordinary efforts to keep you alive when your life can be sustained only artificially. Having such a document means that your doctor, the hospital, and, most importantly, your family needn't make such a monumental decision in a time of intense grief. Used in conjunction with a medical power of attorney (or medical directive in some states), a living will spares everyone from a painful, drawn-out, and costly process. The latter document is the most powerful because it grants the holder the right to make any and all decisions about care as if you were making the choices personally. You can get a living-will document for free at almost every hospital in the nation.

Durable power of attorney and medical power of attorney (or health-care proxy)
These documents allow the person whom you select to make decisions on your behalf -- financial and legal in the first case, medical in the second case -- when you are incapacitated. In the absence of such powers, your family may have to perform financial gymnastics to pay your bills or sell assets to cover costs. They would have to go to court, where someone would be appointed as your guardian (or conservator) who is legally allowed to perform these duties. Both time-consuming and expensive, this roadblock can be avoided by visiting an attorney in advance who can prepare these documents for as little as $100.

Your will (last will and testament)
A will gives your loved ones a reason to get together and listen raptly to your final wishes. It also details exactly what happens to your property (and potentially your minor dependents) when you die. Since life tends to evolve, your will and its provisions need to keep up. When your state of residence, circumstances, or middle name changes, so must your will. Without a will, the state decides how your assets are distributed. An attorney can draft a will cheaply, quickly, and correctly. If you opt for preprinted, fill-in-the-blanks forms and software, be sure it's up-to-date and conforms to the laws of your state.

Avoid adding trauma to tragedy by having your wishes legally specified. It is one legacy that will help ease your family's loss.

More on helping your family through a personal tragedy on Fool.com:

  • Compose Your Legacy: An ethical will is the softer side of estate planning. Here's how to write one.
  • Tough Talk: How to approach loved ones about their final financial wishes.
  • The Million-Dollar Clerical Error: A misfiled form robs a widower of his wife's final wishes. Could it happen to you?
  • Pre-Settle Your Estate: We're not rushing you to your grave, but we urge you to make things easier for your surviving loved ones.
  • Update Your Beneficiaries: After any major life-changing event (marriage, birth, divorce, death), you must re-evaluate who will inherit what.
  • The Windfall Whipsaw: Euphoria! Guilt! Anger! Opportunity! They're all part of the emotional price of inheriting money.

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