If the sad story of Terri Schiavo has taught us anything, it's probably that we should all have living wills, or some kinds of documents that spell out our wishes should any unexpected and awful things happen to us. Many of us -- perhaps most -- do not have such documents prepared, though. We may have long meant to get around to it, but it's just hard to find the time, you know? Truth be told, there are a lot of documents that we all should have.
Below I've listed 10 must-have documents. See how many you have.
Living will and health-care proxy
These forms serve similar purposes (and are sometimes referred to as advance directives). A living will expresses your preferences for treatments should you be unable to make such decisions on your own. If you'd rather not be kept alive by extraordinary means for more than a month, for example, say so. If you want your life prolonged by any means available for as long as possible or you want to donate your organs, say so. A health-care proxy form is one that gives someone else the power to make health-care decisions for you should you be incapacitated. You can get copies of these documents to fill out by searching online, but beware of that route -- you may end up using a form that isn't valid in your state. Instead, check with a local lawyer or hospital. Hospitals sometimes give out such forms for free. Learn more in "Why You Need a Living Will," "Make a Bad Situation Better," and in this article.
It's important to have a will, unless you want your state deciding what happens to your estate. Depending on your assets and family situation, as well as where you live, you can get away with having no will. But if you'd like to ensure that your loved ones' headaches and costs are minimized when you die, get a will. A lawyer can easily prepare a will for you, often for just a few hundred dollars. Learn more in "Who Gets What in Your Will" and "Prepare for Your Demise."
Durable power of attorney
With this form, you authorize someone you trust to make financial and legal decisions for you should you become incapacitated. This can be critical -- even if you're just unconscious temporarily (say for a few weeks) due to a post-surgery complication. You may need someone to close on a home you're selling, or deal with a credit card company. The paperwork involved is minimal, and the possible payoff for having this document in place is enormous.
It's not just the rich who need estate plans. Estate planning is a matter of figuring out how to structure and arrange your assets so that you pass on as much as possible to your heirs on your own terms. The following articles will help you think through this topic, as you prepare to possibly enlist a professional to formalize your plans: "Planning Your Estate," "Don't Neglect Estate Planning," and "Don't Be Financial Prey." Learn about how to maximize the value of your estate in this tax article, "Leave More for Your Family." Our Estate Planning discussion board is also a good resource.
Home or renter's insurance
You probably know that you need home insurance if you own your home. But you may not realize that you can -- and should -- get insurance even if you rent. If your apartment is flooded, for example, your landlord isn't likely to reimburse you for damaged books and musical instruments. Also, even if you have home insurance for your home, don't be complacent. Check up on it every year or two. Is the amount you're covered for still reasonable? If materials costs have soared, it may cost a lot more than you and your insurer originally expected to rebuild your home. If you've made major improvements to the home, you may want to increase the amount of your coverage. Learn much more in our Insurance Center.
I include brokerage statements in this list because I think that most Americans should be invested in the stock market at least to some degree. You needn't have all your net worth tied up in it, but compared to most other alternatives, stocks have proven to be a good way to build long-term wealth. If you don't have a brokerage, we can help you learn to find a good one in our Broker Center. If you do have a brokerage, we can help you possibly find a better one that serves your particular needs best. Learn more in "You Can Trade Online" and "Which Brokerage Is Best?"
These days, with most of us charging more than ever on plastic, it's critical to maintain good credit histories. That much is within our power to do. Sometimes, though, our credit reports contain errors -- that's when it's within our power to get them fixed. Fail to make sure your credit report and score are accurate and you may lose out on the best available interest rate on a mortgage or car loan -- which can cost you many thousands of dollars. Poor credit is even influencing those who apply for jobs. Learn more in "Your Credit Rating Is Likely Flawed," "Credit Cards Sabotaging Mortgages," and "Make Yourself Attractive to Lenders."
A financial manifesto for couples
If you're in a committed relationship, you need to talk turkey with your loved one. By turkey, of course, I mean money. Too many couples avoid having financial heart-to-hearts, and end up in financial and/or interpersonal trouble, if not ruin. Your friend the Fool is here to help. Check out our "A Financial Manifesto for Couples" and "Do You Take This Woman's Debt...?," as well as our Couples and Cash book.
Too many people are closing their eyes, crossing their fingers, and hoping for the best regarding their retirement. But surely you realize that this isn't a great way to ensure a comfy retirement, right? Take heart: Most of us still have of a fighting chance to build a happy retirement -- if we plan and take action now. You can learn a lot on your own, in our Retirement Center and in articles by Robert Brokamp. But if you don't trust yourself to keep on top if it all, consider these other alternatives: You might sign up for a free trial of Robert's Rule Your Retirement newsletter, which will arrive in your mailbox each month, full of guidance and inspiration. Since it's printed on paper, it will hang around, reminding you to keep your ducks in a row. (If you like it, it should more than pay for itself via the money it helps you save or make.) If you think you need even more hand-holding than that, try something else for free -- our TMF Money Advisor service, which gives you access to real, live financial professionals who can answer questions about your personal financial situation for a fraction of the cost of traditional financial advisors. (Learn how to find a good advisor, if you'd like, though.)
A list of things you want to do in life
This last item may seem corny, but it really isn't. Fail to pay attention to what you'd really like to do in life, and you may find yourself suddenly on your death bed, regretting not having done this or that. This list is a lot more fun to compile than a list of your favorite hymns for your funeral, so give it a whirl. Think about how you might like your obituary to read. Think about accomplishments you'd like to check off. I asked fellow Fools on a discussion board to share some of the things on their lists, and I got many interesting responses. One item on my own list is seeing the Aurora Borealis (the northern lights). Other Fools offered: Tour the cockpit of a jet airliner, go on an African safari, fall in love, save someone's life, find God, appear on The Tonight Show, take a cooking class, go back to college, make a living as a musician, build a small barn, lose 30 pounds, kayak among icebergs, read all the books that I currently own, and much more.
Note that my list of 10 must-have documents is far from comprehensive. I invite you to share your thoughts on other vital papers with fellow readers on our discussion board.
In the meantime, if you're all revved up and want to read more about these topics, check out these articles:
S elena Maranjian's favorite discussion boards include Book Club , The Eclectic Library , andCard & Board Games. She owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. For more about Selena, viewher bio and her profile. You might also be interested in these books she has written or co-written:The Motley Fool Money GuideandThe Motley Fool Investment Guide for Teens. The Motley Fool is Fools writing for Fools.