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How to Speak Lawyer Lingo

It's best to plan ahead, wouldn't you agree?

Decisions about your future medical care, your future finances and what to do with your possessions are best made before a crisis occurs.

Maybe you've been reading up on the subject, but you keep running into confusing "lawyer language."

To help simplify things, here are some straight forward descriptions of key legal terms provided by judges, professors and national organizations.


If you are no longer able to manage your own affairs (incapacitated), a court may appoint a guardian. Often this person is a family member.

The court transfers some or all of your rights to your guardian, which may include making decisions about your right to marry, spend money or drive a car.

Your guardian must carry out the terms of the guardianship, such as filing regular reports on the state of your health. If the guardian fails to do so, the court can remove him or her.

You can avoid guardianship by setting up, in advance, some other mechanism for your care. For example, you could have a living will, a durable power of attorney for health care or a document of advance directives prepared.

Advance Directives

Suppose you had an accident or serious illness, such as a stroke. It's possible that you could never again recognize your family and friends, or even regain consciousness. If you should become incapacitated, what would you want done?

You can leave such future decisions to your spouse or children. Or you can leave instructions that will ensure what you want done will be done. Advance directives can:

*Make sure all possible measures will be taken to preserve your life. Or they can specify only medications for comfort, or something in between, such as "no machines," meaning no excessive treatment or heroic measures.

*Designate a family member or friend to make decisions for you.

*Include a durable power of attorney for health care or a living will.

Living Will

Sometimes called a terminal care document, a living will goes into effect if you should become incapacitated. It indicates your wishes for medical treatment.

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care

When you legally designate another person to make medical decisions on your behalf, you are giving that person power of attorney for health care.

It is important to know that a traditional power of attorney ends when you become incapacitated. Durable power of attorney does not.

Financial Planning

Financial planning means developing total, coordinated plans for reaching your overall financial goals. One goal, for instance, would be to secure an adequate cash flow after retirement. Good financial planning also includes preparing for what happens to your estate.

Estate Planning

Estate planning is arranging for the transfer of your belongings or assets to others, usually the next generation. Your estate includes everything you own. It consists of two kinds of property:

*Personal property is movable. Tangible assets include automobiles, furniture, clothing, tools and jewelry. Intangible assets include investments such as stocks, bonds, pension plans, savings accounts and franchises.

*Real property is not movable. It includes land and anything attached to it, such as a building, or anything growing on it, such as an orchard.


A trust is a legal device or instrument to hold your assets. There are many different kinds of trusts.

*A living trust takes effect before death. You can control it yourself or appoint a trustee. This person, or possibly a bank-trust company, will care for or distribute your assets as you have requested.

*A testamentary trust is created by a will and never takes effect before death.


A will declares what you want to happen to your assets after death. It makes known what people or organizations will benefit from your estate. It lets you name a person (executor) to carry out your wishes.

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