You know a will is important for taking care of your family after you pass, and it remains one of the pillars of estate planning. But it’s not the only document you’ll likely need if you also want to take care of yourself.

Only 1/3 of Americans have a health care directive in place, even though it can be a crucial part of any estate plan. It’s never too early to start planning for the later stages of your life, and wills and power of attorney may not hold the legal sway necessary in important matters that could arise.

Healthy planning

There are often essential differences between the various estate planning documents:

  • Outline what care: You can typically dictate what type of care you receive, and what you don’t want. This could range from pain medications to reduce suffering to numbing agents to ease the use of tube feeding. You might even outline how far you want your care providers to go in sustaining life when your body is failing. A standard power of attorney may only assign a proxy, not legally outline guidelines.
  • When to begin: Your directive can usually kick into gear when you designate. In the event of specific circumstances, or when you become incapacitated, your instructions can start guiding your care. Other forms of power of attorney may actually lose their efficacy once you no longer retain decision-making capabilities.
  • Where it ends: Death may not be the end of the health care directive. While a power of attorney may end with your passing, and a will may get held up in probate court, you can show the way for the proper handling of your body. You can relay your stance on organ donations, funeral wishes and religious rites.

You also want to make things as easy as possible for your family, so don’t leave them with agonizing questions that may already have answers. Establishing a plan for your care when you can no longer make decisions can go a long way to ensuring that your family carries out your wishes.