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Creating a living will is one of those things most people want and plan to do, but rarely get around to actually doing. Less than 30 percent of Americans currently have one. But preparing one now, gives you say in how you want to be treated at the end of your life, not to mention it can spare your loved ones some very stressful decisions at an emotional time. Here's what you should know.

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Living Wills: Planning for the inevitable

Creating a living will is one of those things most people want and plan to do, but rarely get around to actually doing. Less than 30 percent of Americans currently have one. But preparing one now, gives you say in how you want to be treated at the end of your life, not to mention it can spare your loved ones some very stressful decisions at an emotional time. Here’s what you should know.

Dear Savvy Senior,

Can you recommend some good resources to help my wife and I create our living wills? We want to avoid any artificial life-support at the end of our life, but would also like to avoid a high-priced attorney to get them. What can you tell me? —Procrastinating Paul

Dear Paul,

Creating a living will is one of those things most people want and plan to do, but rarely get around to actually doing. Less than 30 percent of Americans currently have one. But preparing one now, gives you say in how you want to be treated at the end of your life, not to mention it can spare your loved ones some very stressful decisions at an emotional time. Here’s what you should know.

Advance Directives
To adequately spell out your wishes regarding your end-of-life medical treatment you need two legal documents: A "living will" which tells your doctor what kind of care you want to receive if you become incapacitated. And a "medical power of attorney" (or health care proxy) which names a person you authorize to make medical decisions on your behalf if you become unable to. These two documents are known as advance directives.

Do-It-Yourself
Today, there are several free or low-cost resources to help you write your advance directive, and it takes only a few minutes from start to finish. Here are some good places to find help:

  • Caring Connections: A resource created by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization that provides free information and state-specific advance directive forms with instructions on their Web site (www.caringinfo.org) that you can download and print. Or, you can call 800-658-8898 and they will mail them to you and answer any questions you may have.

  • Aging with Dignity: An advocacy organization that offers an easy-to-use legal document called "Five Wishes" that covers all facets of an advance directive. Five Wishes is legally valid in 40 states and costs $5. To get a copy, visit www.agingwithdignity.org or call 888-594-7437.

  • Online resources: For under $15 Web sites like www.legacywriter.com and www.uslegalwills.com can create a living will and medical power of attorney for you by asking you questions and inserting your answers. Once you’re finished, you simply print it out (or they can mail it to you) and sign it with two witnesses present to make it legal. You may also need to get it notarized depending on the state you live in. Or, if you’re looking for a little extra help, try www.legalzoom.com. This site works like the others but will then have a specialist review your answers for completeness. The cost for this service starts at $39.

  • U.S. Living Will Registry: This is a nifty service that electronically stores your advance directive and organ donor information and makes these documents available to your family or health care providers 24 hours a day via the Internet or telephone. The cost to register is $125. See www.uslivingwillregistry.com for more information.

Multipurpose Planning
If you looking for a comprehensive estate planning tool "Quicken WillMaker Plus 2010" (www.nolo.com; 800-728-3555) is a top resource that uses computer software to create state-specific living wills, as well as property wills, trusts and many other documents. You can purchase it as a downloadable software program for $44, or you can get it on a CD for $50.

Savvy Tips: To insure your final wishes are followed, be very thorough when you create your living will and medical power of attorney documents and give copies to your family and doctor. It’s also important to have a direct, candid conversation with your health care proxy and doctor so they know exactly what you want. And don’t forget to review your advance directive every few years and update it when necessary.

If you would rather use a lawyer to draft your advance directive, look for one who specializes in estate planning and health care related matters. The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (www.naela.org), and the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils (www.naepc.org) are good resources to start with.

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Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit www.savvysenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of "The Savvy Senior" book.

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