Imagine that your partner of over a decade is injured in a car crash and you rush to see him at the hospital. When you arrive, desperate to know what is happening, you are told he is unconscious and asked to leave because only family is allowed to visit at the time. That is not an unrealistic scenario. If a married person is ever incapacitated, the law generally gives his or her spouse the ability to make necessary decisions related to health care and finances. For unmarried couples, there is a risk that at the most inopportune time you will be excluded from the decision-making process because there is no legal basis to give weight to your views. To avoid this scenario, committed partners should consider giving each other the power to act on the other’s behalf if needed. There are three main documents to think about.
Living will or health care declaration
Perhaps the most important step to take is to declare your own health-care wishes. For example, you may want to think about serious questions like how long you would want to be kept alive if you had no chance of recovery. Many people also have religious objections to certain procedures. You may also just prefer to avoid certain treatments, for example a recovering addict may not want to be given opioid painkillers. These types of decisions should all be written down in a document that a trusted family member has access to and can use to guide your doctors if a tough decision ever needs to be made.
Medical directives or durable powers of attorney for health care
It is impossible to plan for every situation yourself, so you will need someone to make decisions for you if you are unable to do it. In most states this person would automatically be your spouse. If you are unmarried and cohabiting with someone, the partner you are living together with may not be consulted at all. The decision would likely go to your parents or then to your next closest relative if your parents are not available. Most states allow you to simply sign a declaration upending this traditional order and choosing anyone you want, including a long-time partner, to make medical decisions for you.
Durable powers of attorney for finances
When someone is incapacitated it inevitably brings up a host of financial concerns. Unmarried partners might be the right person to manage these financial challenges, and the law generally allows an individual to nominate an agent to be appointed to handle their finances if that ever became necessary. This person can pay your bills, manage your investments, pay for services around your home, and help manage the costs of your care. You can usually give someone power of attorney immediately, and that is sometimes done for an elderly person or someone that needs assistance right away. Powers of attorney can also be set up to take effect only if needed for some unexpected reason.