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Five Legal Documents Everyone Needs

by LaBrena Friend, LMSW

At birth, most of us acquired a birth certificate and possibly a social security card.  As you’ve moved through life, you’ve probably accumulated more official documents: diplomas, degrees, licenses, titles, and so on.  However, as you grow older, it’s important not to overlook some vitally important documents related to health care and estate planning.

Many people avoid this process because they think it’s complicated or expensive – or that the entire subject is too unpleasant to think about. However, as you’ll see at the end of this column, expert assistance with this process is available at little or no charge. And, while it’s true that these issues may not be as pleasant to consider as, say, what you’d like for dinner, consider the alternative. If you don’t take care of this while you’re healthy, your loved ones could be left with no way to carry out your wishes in a crisis, or they could be forced to go to court.   

Don’t let that happen to you or the people you love. Here is a list of documents you will need to inform your family, doctors, caregivers and legal authorities of your wishes if you are incapacitated or facing end-of-life decisions:

  1. Medical Directive, also known as a Living Will or Advance Healthcare Directive. This document allows you to decide what kind of care you want to receive if or when you become ill or incapacitated.  A medical directive is an essential legal tool for protecting your healthcare wishes. All adults, regardless of age, need a Medical Directive; anyone, regardless of health status, can be incapacitated at any time by an accident or sudden illness.
  2. Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare and HIPAA Release. In this document, you can authorize a trusted friend or family member to make healthcare decisions for you if you are unable to make them for yourself. This person is also given access to your health records.
  3. Durable Power of Attorney for Finances. This legal document appoints a person or institution to handle your financial affairs if you are incapacitated. When preparing this document, you may choose to allow it to go into effect immediately – or only if you are incapacitated.
  4. Revocable Living Trust. Through this document, you can retain control of your assets while transferring assets to your beneficiaries. It also will allow your estate to avoid probate court at the time of your death.
  5. Will. This document designates who will receive your assets and personal property at the time of your death.

Each of these documents is essential for managing situations that will occur sooner or later in most of our lives. If you have not completed these documents, it is crucial that you make plans to do so as soon as possible. You can engage an elder law attorney to complete these documents. If you are concerned about the cost of hiring an attorney, the non-profit Legal Services of Alabama may be able to provide these services at little or no cost. To contact the agency, whose fees are based on income, visit or call 1-866-456-4995. Those who are internet-savvy can download free advance planning documents specific to your state through the National Healthcare Decisions Day website,


If you need direct assistance, please contact Clinical Director Tammy Peacock, Phd., LICSW, or 205.879.3438. You will be connected with one of our experienced social workers who will guide you through the process.