Who will make critical life decisions for you if you cannot?

There is no substitute for being properly prepared when disaster strikes. Even in the course of ordinary life, it can become increasingly difficult for us as we get older to manage our own affairs. But this is especially true in cases of stroke, Alzheimer's and other mentally debilitating conditions. Fortunately, Massachusetts law allows residents to choose who they want to have control over their personal affairs should they lose the ability to do so.

A durable power of attorney is a document that allows you to give another person (called an "attorney-in-fact") the authority to make banking, real estate and other financial decisions on your behalf. It can be broad in its granting of authority or limited to specific aspects of your financial dealings. The goal of the instrument is to allow you to choose the person who will control your personal affairs in the event you are unable, instead of leaving it to the state to appoint a conservator.

How the state of Massachusetts defines durable power of attorney

The Massachusetts statute defining a durable power of attorney says that the document must be in writing and must include the words, "This power of attorney shall not be affected by subsequent disability or incapacity of the principal, or lapse of time," or "This power of attorney shall become effective upon the disability or incapacity of the principal," or similar words that convey the same idea. Unless a termination date is stated in writing, the agreement ends at the end of your life.

Why you need a health care proxy, too

While a durable power of attorney provides significant security relating to financial matters, health care choices are another important consideration. A health care proxy is a document that allows you to name the person (called a "health care agent") you want to make life and death decisions for you should you be unable to do so yourself due to accident or illness. A designated health care agent would then be given access to your confidential medical information to make critical decisions.

Unlike a durable power of attorney, which is effectively immediately, a health care proxy does not take effect until a physician determines - and states that determination in writing - that you are unable to make or communicate decisions relating to your medical care. Massachusetts is one of only three states that recognize health care proxies instead of living wills. If you have a living will that appoints a health care agent, you need a proxy in Massachusetts. If you live in another state part of the year or travel often, you should have both.

Take the time now to get your critical affairs in order

Coupling a health care proxy with a durable power of attorney ensures that no matter what, you maintain some level of control over your life. Taking the time to prepare now will save you and your family significant heartache during a time of crisis. No matter your age or situation in life, contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss these critical documents to ensure your life remains in your hands.