Diane A. Wallis practices Law in Raleigh. She has focused on Elder Law, wills, estates and real estate since graduating from law school in 1982.

Many difficult issues face Senior Citizens today as they manage their health and finances and seek to preserve their independence. Planning now will let you determine your own future and preserve your independence. Failing to plan can make you dependent on the decisions of your family or the government. There are many places to look for solutions. Good legal planning is one important step.

Identify your goals

Goals must be based upon your special circumstances. Be sure that the goals you act on are those you care about rather than the ones you feel are expected of you. Goals may include simplicity, control, safety and privacy. Here are some common examples:

•  Business affairs if you are ill.
•  Advance decisions about illness or a health care agent you trust to make the right decisions.
•  Assure that your assets will pay for long term care.
•  Minimize taxes.
•  Avoid government involvement.

Identify your assets

You should make a list of your assets, exact ownership, and their location. Many assets pass by naming a beneficiary or a co-owner rather than under a will. You should determine how each one will pass to your beneficiaries.

Think about who may have access to your assets in various circumstances during your life. If you are ill, you may need someone to manage your finances or access your safe deposit box. In that case instructions on how to find your assets would be very helpful. A simple list reduces uncertainty.

Organize your papers

You will feel much more in control of your affairs once you identify and organize your resources. Identify one file cabinet or other safe place and start assembling important papers: insurance policies, account statements, tax records, and any legal documents you already have.

Then make a simple summary of all of your assets, identifying the company, amount and owner or beneficiary. You may wish to discuss this list with your family or you may wish to keep your affairs confidential for the present and just tell family where your important papers are located. Once you look at the completed list, you will be able to tell if there is anything that needs to be done. You may feel it is time to talk to a financial planner or a lawyer, or both.

Address important issues

Trustworthy assistance for health and financial matters is critical. Ask your health care provider what your chart says about whom they will talk to if they cannot talk with you. If you have a health care power of attorney, make sure that your doctors have copies. Make sure those you have chosen know your wishes and are willing to carry them out. Make sure those you have chosen to handle finances for you are experienced in finance and that they are not experiencing their own difficulties.

You should also get expert advice on whether there are assets that should have ownership changed or some other important adjustment. If you have legal documents, get them out and read them to make sure you still like what they say. Then, consider whether it is time to have them reviewed to make sure they are up to date.

Plan for effective assistance

Drafting a health care power of attorney and a general durable power of attorney can assure that you have the care that you want. Documents drafted ahead of time avoid or minimize family disputes that cost money and time and create heartache. Creating a living trust is not right for everyone, but you should ask about it if you have concerns about who will manage your assets if you are sick or about who will care for dependents when you are not around.

Every Senior should have a lawyer to call on for expert advice and drafting, and one or two other trustworthy advisers to give reliable advice in times of stress. The more you have access to wise advice, the better able you will be to protect yourself and maintain your independent decision-making.