Making Medical and Financial Decisions for Your Unmarried Partner or Friend

Here's an overview of health care directives and durable powers of attorney for finances—and why they're so important for people who aren't married.

If you ever become unable to make your own health care decisions or manage your own finances because of injury, serious illness, or advanced age, you probably want your partner to step in and take care of you. The same is true if you aren't in a relationship but want a good friend to take on this role. But unlike married couples, people who aren't married to each other usually aren't permitted to handle medical or financial decisions for each other.

If you want to ensure that critical decisions stay in the hands of your partner or friend, you'll need to prepare a few simple documents: health care directives and durable powers of attorney for finances.

Health Care Directives

Every state has laws authorizing individuals to create simple documents setting out their wishes about the type of medical treatment they do (or do not) want to receive if they are unable to communicate their preferences. These documents may also name someone to make medical decisions on the signer's behalf. These documents are particularly important for unmarried partners and anyone who's not in a relationship. If you don't take the time to prepare them and you become incapacitated, doctors will turn to a family member designated by state law to make medical decisions for you. Most states list spouses, adult children, and parents as top-priority decision makers, making no mention of unmarried partners.

There are two documents that permit you to set out your health care wishes, both grouped under the broad label health care directives or advance directives.

  • Living will. You need a written statement to medical personnel that spells out your wishes for medical care if you become incapacitated. Your statement functions as a contract with your treating doctor, who must either honor your wishes for health care or transfer you to another doctor or facility that will honor them. This document is often called a living will.
  • Durable power of attorney for health care. In this document, you appoint the person you choose—most likely your partner—to see that your doctors and other health care providers give you the kind of medical care you want to receive. You can also use your durable power of attorney for health care to give your partner (who may be called your "attorney-in-fact," "agent," or "proxy" depending on where you live) other rights to participate in your medical care.

Note that some states combine these two documents into one, which is often called an "advance health care directive," or simply "advance directive."

Durable Powers of Attorney for Finances

With a durable power of attorney for finances, you may name someone you trust (called your "attorney-in-fact" or "agent") to handle your finances if you become unable to take care of yourself. Every state recognizes this type of document.

As with documents directing medical care, you should seriously consider making a durable financial power of attorney if you want your partner or friend to manage your money when you aren't able to do so. If you don't prepare the document and you later become incapacitated, your partner, relative, or friend will have to ask a court for authority over your financial affairs. These conservatorship proceedings can be time-consuming and expensive. And they can be disastrous for unmarried couples if a judge appoints another family member or even a stranger to take over, especially if your finances have been intertwined with those of your partner for a long time.

You can make your financial power of attorney effective immediately or you can specify that it should go into effect only if you become incapacitated (what's called a "springing" power of attorney). Some people are more comfortable making a springing document. But for couples in long-term, trusting relationships, making the document effective immediately can have advantages. That way, your partner can handle financial transactions for you at any time, even when you're not incapacitated. This can be useful if you are out of town, under the weather, or temporarily unavailable for any other reason.

When you make a durable power of attorney for finances, you can give your partner (or other attorney-in-fact) as much or as little control over your finances as you wish. The powers you grant may include:

  • using your assets to pay your bills and everyday expenses
  • buying, selling, maintaining, paying taxes on, and mortgaging real estate and other property
  • collecting benefits from Social Security, Medicare, or other government programs or civil or military service
  • investing your money in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds
  • handling transactions with banks and other financial institutions
  • buying and selling insurance policies and annuities for you
  • filing and paying your taxes
  • operating your small business
  • claiming property you inherit or are otherwise entitled to
  • hiring someone to represent you in court, and
  • managing your retirement accounts.

As with health care directives, you can make a durable power of attorney for finances if you're at least 18 years old and of sound mind. And you can change or cancel your document at any time—again, as long as you are of sound mind.

Getting the Forms for Health Care Directives and Durable Powers of Attorney for Finances

There are a number of ways to find the proper health care and power of attorney forms for your state. You don't usually need to consult a lawyer to obtain or prepare them. Here are some good sources for forms and instructions:

  • Quicken WillMaker & Trust (Nolo) is software that allows you to prepare a health care directive and a durable power of attorney for finances. It also lets you make a will, living trust, and many other useful legal documents.
  • Caring Connections is a nonprofit organization that offers information and advance health care forms for every state.
  • You may also be able to obtain health care forms from local senior centers, your health care provider, or your state's medical association.
  • For more information on health care directives and durable powers of attorney, see the Estate Planning section of the Nolo website.

Finalizing the Documents

Once you've completed the documents for health care and financial power of attorney, you'll need to sign and finalize them. The requirements for this vary from state to state. For the power of attorney, you'll usually need to sign it in the presence of a notary. Some states also require witnesses. When that's the case, the laws might set limits on who may act as a witness.

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