When preparing for a deployment, it is easy to focus on your military training and spend less time ensuring your legal affairs are in order. Just as proper training helps you prepare for a deployment, proper legal arrangements can help to improve your military readiness.
Power of attorney, living will, and last will and testament
Prior to your deployment, you should ensure that you have an updated version of your power of attorney, your living will, and your last will and testament. These three documents provide the legal authority to ensure that your wishes are honored while deployed (power of attorney), if you are seriously injured (living will), or die (last will and testament):
- Power of attorney. A power of attorney is a written document that gives one person the authority to act on another's behalf for any legal or economic issues for a specified period of time. When preparing for a deployment, this period of time is typically the expected length of your deployment plus three months in case your deployment is extended. The person you designate in the power of attorney document should be your spouse, parent or a trusted friend, since a power of attorney gives that person the expressed written permission to act on your behalf. You can find more information on this topic in our article Power of Attorney Basics.
- Living will. A living will, or advance medical directive, is a written document that allows you to describe what medical treatments you do or do not want in case of a serious injury or terminal illness. It only takes effect you are unable to express your wishes in some other way. Living wills also allow you to identify another person who should make medical decisions for you if you are unable to make them on your own. If you decide to draft a living will, make sure that the person you designate as the decision-maker knows about your wishes, knows where you keep the living will and has access to it.
- Last will and testament. A last will and testament (or will) describes how you wish your property to be disposed of and, if you have children, who should care for them after your death. If you do not already have a will, you are strongly encouraged to get one, especially if you have significant savings and/or real estate. Without a will, a court may end up deciding how to distribute your property and possibly decide who should be responsible for the care of your children. If you already have a will, you should still consider meeting with an attorney prior to your deployment to review it.With the help of an attorney, you can determine if the will still meets your needs and make any necessary changes.
Additional legal documents to have on hand
In addition to updating your power of attorney, living will, and last will and testament, there are other legal documents to consider as well. These documents typically do not need to be updated, but it is a good idea to gather them together in one place so that your spouse, parent or trusted friend handling you affairs will have easy access to them while you are away:
- Marriage and family documents. Marriage and family documents are those that provide the legal proof of life events. Your family (or designated representative) may need these documents while you are deployed to access or make necessary make changes to financial/insurance affairs and to access military benefits. These documents include birth certificates, marriage certificate, divorce decrees/separation agreements, death certificates for deceased family members, naturalization or citizenship papers, court orders pertaining to support and custody of legal dependents, legal papers/adoption papers and social security numbers/cards for all family members.
- Insurance policies. All insurance policies, along with account information and points of contact for the insurance agency, should be kept with the legal documents in the event of an emergency. These may include life insurance policies, homeowners insurance policies, renters insurance policies and automotive insurance policies.
- Property documents. As with insurance policies, any documents related to your property should be stored together in a safe location in case your family (or designated representative) needs to access them. These include any deeds on property you own, account number and contact information for your mortgage, any lease agreements you have and any automotive titles or loan papers.
Additional assistance on legal affairs
Each of the Military Services provides assistance and advice in drafting and updating legal documents through Legal Assistance offices. Service members preparing for a deployment are typically given higher priority for these services on the installation. The nearest military Legal Assistance office can be found through the Armed Forces Legal Assistance (AFLA) Legal Services Locator.
The American Bar Association (ABA) Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel (LAMP) manages Operation Enduring LAMP, a consortium of state and local bar associations that recruit volunteer attorneys to assist military Legal Assistance attorneys with civil law cases affecting service members. Service members can use the Operation Enduring LAMP website to locate a participating attorney in their local area.