Putting the house in order. Six things your parents should think through before they have to.

An ABC News poll I read recently reported that an astonishing 50% of Americans don’t have a will. One can safely assume they don’t have a healthcare proxy, much less long-term health insurance, either. This is something you will want your parents to focus on before it is too late.

Face it, emergencies are hard enough when you are completely prepared for them. Anyone at any age can have an accident (which is why you need all these documents yourself, too). And if you think these are tough discussions when your parents are healthy, believe me, it is far worse to wait until something catastrophic has happened. Moreover, the older your parents are when you bring this up, the more it sounds like you think they already have one foot in the grave. The bottom line: Don’t put off talking about this.

Here are the six documents you want to be sure your parents have in place (ad that you know where to locate).

  • Healthcare Proxy. Accidents do happen. If your parents are unable to make (or communicate) their healthcare decisions, who would they like to be deciding for them? (Probably not the ER doctor whom they have never met). This document must be put into place before it is needed.
  • Durable Power of Attorney. The non-medical corollary to a healthcare proxy, this document empowers an “agent” (you?) to make financial and other decisions on your parents’ behalf. While this document also must be put in place before it is needed, it can be structured to only take effect if your parent actually becomes incapacitated.
  • Advanced Directives/Living Will. If an accident leaves your parents incapacitated, do they want life support? Having these wishes down in writing can forestall the need for family members to make gut-wrenching choices. Important reminder: A living will does no good locked in a drawer. Make sure that each sibling (or other potential family caregiver) has a copy, and that at a time of crisis everyone at the hospital gets one, too.
  • A financial plan. What happens if your parents need expensive and potentially long-term medical care? Are their assets sufficient? (Really? For both of them? For how many years?) Do they have long-term care insurance? If so, what does it cover? Thinking through these issues when there is time and freedom to make proactive decisions can make a tremendous difference down the road. Good advice is critical. Find a financial planner who is objective and understands the specific issues that you are confronting.
  • Funeral plans. Burial or cremation? The town where they live or where they grew up? Church service or graveside? Which readings? Which music? Which clothes will they be buried in? Death brings a cascade of decisions at a time we are least equipped to make them—which can cause unnecessary strife among the survivors. Better if they decide when it is still a theoretical discussion.
  • The Will. What happens to the house? Who gets Grammy Hope’s silver service? Why don't I get more cash when I did all the hands-on care for the last three years? Even in highly functioning families, siblings rarely get through the division of property without someone’s feelings being hurt. The kindest thing parents can do is leave crystal clear directives. It is often useful to consider asking someone outside the immediate family to take the role of executor, which can forestall further conflict.

If all this seems overwhelming, it doesn't need to be. Find a good eldercare or Trust & Estate attorney to help you. They’ll have the forms you need, know the pitfalls to avoid, understand the questions to ask. Starting with: When are you going to talk to your parents?

This post is part two in a series. Also read: “The Talk.” Helping parents prepare for their latter years.