Take steps to finalize end-of-life intentions

Published April 3, 2005

One of the many sad things about the Terri Schiavo tragedy is that she did not have legal documents that could speak for her when she no longer could speak for herself.

The massive media attention devoted to her case has prompted thousands of people across the country to seek information about such documents, which have the strange-sounding name "advance directives." But interest is only the first step. If you're one of those who has been thinking about end-of-life issues, now is the time to take the next step to sign the documents and to get the process witnessed to make them legal.

No lawyer is required. Forms for living wills and health care surrogate designations are available for free from many sources. One is the Florida Bar Web site, www.flabar.org in the "consumer services" section. Another source is the state Agency for Health Care Administration. Call toll-free at 1-888-419-3456 and ask for a copy of the publication "Health Care Advance Directives."

Probably the most important form is one designating a health care surrogate - the person you want to make decisions in your care. You should designate an alternate in case your first choice cannot serve. And you should fill out a living will if you don't want life "artificially prolonged" when there is no hope of recovery. You can specify whether you want food and water continued if they would prolong the process of dying. Then discuss your wishes with your designated health care surrogate.

The forms require the signatures of two witnesses, at least one of whom must not be a spouse or blood relative. If your family members are the contentious sort, you might consider having the signatures notarized. Once you've got your documents in order, be sure your family members and physicians know where they are.

While health care issues take priority, this is a good time to think about how you would want your financial affairs handled during your incapacity.

Some people put their assets in a trust and name a successor trustee to take over when they're no longer able to manage them. Even if your assets are too modest to consider a trust, it's a good idea to sign a durable power of attorney form to allow someone to act in your stead. Talk to a lawyer about what would be best for your situation.

Could you tell me how I might find out how safe my brokerage firm is? What protections, if any, are there should they become insolvent?

All brokerages that are registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission are members of the Securities Investor Protection Corp. (www.sipc.org) This arrangement protects each customer's investments up to $500,000, including up to $100,000 in cash, if a brokerage is liquidated. Some brokerages offer more protection by buying additional insurance. Look for the words "Member SIPC" in brokerage ads.

It is important to note that this insurance is designed to protect you if your investments are missing when the brokerage goes out of business. It does not protect you if your investments have declined in value or are worthless, nor will it pay an arbitration award.

Brokerages file a statement of financial condition Form X-17A-5 with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and you can ask the brokerage for a copy. The forms are not yet available online (at least not for the brokerages I checked.) Some brokerages are part of publicly traded companies, which means you can go to www.sec.gov call up the most recent 10K filing through the Edgar database and check out the parent company's balance sheet.

Your best protection is to deal with well-established companies with good reputations.

NOTE TO READERS: If someone you don't know asks you to cash a money order or cashier's check and send them your own check for part of the proceeds, don't do it. The lure is a commission promised to you for your trouble. It's a scam. The money orders and cashier's checks are counterfeit but typically aren't detected until after you've sent off your money.

Helen Huntley writes about investing and markets for the Times. If you have a question about investments or personal finance, send it to On Money. We'll try to answer those we think are of greatest reader interest. All questions must be submitted in writing, but readers' names will not be published. Send questions to huntley@sptimes.com or Helen Huntley, Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.