There are few things in life more valuable than our health and the ability to use our minds, but - honestly - don't we often take our good health for granted? Consciously or unconsciously, we think that every morning we will awake as healthy and functional as the day before. But tragedy does strike. A few months ago, a good friend of mine was tragically injured in a snowmobile collision. At age 43, he hung onto life while he was unconscious for nearly 40 days. At times, he was not given much hope for living. Fortunately, the coma has come and gone and he is improving at a steady pace, but some of the effects of the accident may reside with him forever.

If you are sidelined with an incapacitating illness or are seriously injured in an accident, it could have a significant impact on your family's lifestyle. But the overall effect can be much bigger. Reduced earnings today can mean a less than comfortable retirement and a smaller estate to pass on to your loved ones.Most people don't prepare for the possibility of being temporarily or permanently disabled. Many employers don't include group disability insurance in their employee benefits packages, either. This leaves most people on their own except for a little help from the government.

Beyond the direct financial consequences of a disability, there could be some important personal concerns as well. You may have to go through a "living probate" process if you don't have the proper estate planning documents already in place. Let's say a person suffers a stroke or is involved in a car accident and ends up with a head injury. As a result, this person may not be able to make personal and financial decisions.

What happens next? Someone - typi-cally a spouse, child or parent - must file court papers to have the individual declared legally incompetent. Interested parties, including family and creditors, must be notified. A hearing will take place, and the individual may need to be present if his or her physical and mental health will allow it. If not, medical evidence or testimony will be introduced. And finally, a notice of the hearing will be published in the local newspaper.

If the person is declared mentally incompetent, the court will appoint others to act on his or her behalf. This responsibility is often split in two. A personal guardian makes decisions with respect to medical care and facilities. A financial guardian or conservator makes the financial decisions. Both roles can be handled by the same person.

You can take steps to ensure that people you know and trust take care of you and not someone appointed by the probate court. You can do this with a health-care power of attorney, along with a revocable living trust. You can use the health-care power of attorney to express your wishes regarding life-support measures and long-term care. With the revocable living trust, you can designate a successor trustee to manage your financial affairs. The trustee is required to follow the detailed directions you've provided in your trust documents.

If you want to make sure you are properly cared for should a disability occur, you should speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your alternatives.

As always, that will ensure that you have the right plan for your particular family and financial situation.