What if an accident or illness leaves you unable to manage your financial affairs or tell your doctors how you’d like to be treated? Three documents can inform your spouse, partner, or trusted friend of your preferences in a health crisis and give them the power to act on your behalf.

Think of a financial power of attorney, health care proxy, and living will as an “Open, sesame!” that gets things done when you can’t do them yourself in a health crisis. Without them, even your nearest and dearest may be shut out of decision-making conversations with doctors or lack the means to pay the mortgage without going through time-consuming and stressful court proceedings. With those documents, they can make sure your finances stay healthy as you recover.

The good news is that the process is simple and inexpensive. In general, all you need to do is properly complete a fill-in-the-blanks form that’s a few pages long and sign it in front of a notary public. Because some states have their own health care proxy forms, it’s best to Google the name of your state and “health care proxy” to download the proper form. Some banks and brokerage companies also have proprietary forms; in that case, you may need to prepare both your state’s official form and the form provided by your financial institution. Forms can be downloaded for free; Nolo’s award-winning WillMaker Plus software costs $54.99 but also includes all advance directive and estate planning forms.

There’s one catch, though, and it’s key: You have to sign and officially stamp these documents before a health crisis happens. Once a health crisis occurs, it’s too late. 

Financial Power of Attorney: Paying the Bills

The last thing you want in a healthcare crisis is to get better and find that your finances are a mess. A financial power of attorney gives the person you designate—called “your agent”—the legal authority to tap your assets to take care of such important money management tasks as: paying your bills and mortgage, operating your small business; filing your taxes; collecting your Social Security benefits; handling transactions with your bank and brokerage. You can give your agent as much or as little power as you wish.

A financial power of attorney can be drafted so that it goes into effect as soon as you sign it. Many couples have an active financial power of attorney for each other in case something happens to one of them. If that’s your choice, be sure to specify that you want the power of attorney to be “durable,” otherwise the authority will automatically end if you become incapacitated—exactly when your spouse needs it.

You can also specify that you want to maintain control over your affairs until a doctor certifies that you have become incapacitated. This “springing” durable power of attorney—so-called because it springs into effect only under certain circumstances—can be reassuring if you prefer to be completely in charge. 

Health Care Proxy: Acting on Your Wishes

With the healthcare industry’s emphasis on patient privacy, it is critical to appoint a health care proxy. Also known as a durable power of attorney for health care or, less commonly, a medical power of attorney, this directive appoints a proxy to oversee your medical care and make health care decisions for you if you are too ill or injured to speak for yourself.

A health care proxy affects your finances by permitting or declining what can be very costly forms of treatment. She can also make choices— such as where you do rehab—that can help you achieve a full recovery.

“It’s critical to have a health care proxy, even for married couples,” advises Mantell, because the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) Privacy Rule prevents medical professionals from sharing information or allowing you to implement a loved one’s wishes without that piece of paper. The proxy also gives someone who’s not your spouse access to the information they need to make medical decisions on your behalf. “It just makes things easier,” Mantell says.

Living Will: Explaining What You Want

To make your wishes clear, you need a third legal document: a health care directive, also called an advance directive or “living will.” This is where you articulate how far you want the doctors to go in preserving or prolonging your life. For example, do you want cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or other extraordinary measures? Do you want to be intubated to assist in breathing or nutrition? Or would you prefer only palliative care to decrease pain and suffering?

The proxy and the living will depend on each other. “The health care proxy gives you access to information but it doesn’t tell you what your loved one wants to happen. And the health care directive doesn’t do any good unless you have the proxy,” notes Mantell.

“It’s hard to talk about these topics but do it anyway,” Mantell says. “You can’t figure this stuff out when you’re in the middle of an emergency. That’s too late.”