How important are a health care proxy and a power-of-attorney? My parents are in their 80s, and they have neither. Is this something I should be taking care of? Does it have to be done through an attorney?

Powers of attorney and health care proxies are very important -- and their importance increases as you get older. These legal documents give you some control over your medical and financial affairs, even if you're incapacitated.

In a health care proxy, you authorize another person to make your medical decisions if you're unable to state your wishes. Lawyers recommend that you also have a living will, a document saying what life-sustaining medical treatments you do and don't want. Your power-of-attorney gives another person the authority to act on your behalf in financial matters. The power-of-attorney form lists many types of transactions, including banking, insurance, real estate and tax matters. You initial each power that you want to confer.

It's extremely difficult for anyone to help their parents through a crisis without these documents. If your mother is under sedation in a hospital, for example, its staff wants to see her health care proxy before discussing her condition with you. And utility companies want to see her power-of-attorney before revealing her account balances -- even if you're only trying to pay her bills for her.

It's not essential to go to a lawyer for these documents. You can buy standard forms, with instructions for completing them, online at blumberglegalforms.com

Make sure the power-of-attorney form is "durable." Otherwise, it automatically expires when you become incapacitated. Like wills, durable powers-of-attorney, health care proxies and living wills are revocable -- you can change your mind anytime.

THE BOTTOM LINE Your loved ones can't help you effectively in a crisis without your health care proxy and power-of-attorney.

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WEBSITES WITH MORE INFORMATION nwsdy.li/healthproxy and nwsdy.li/POA

TO ASK THE EXPERT Send questions to Ask the Expert / Act 2, Newsday Newsroom, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747-4226, or email act2@newsday.com. Include your name, address and phone number. Questions can be answered only in this column. Advice is offered as general guidance. Check with your own advisers for your specific needs.