If you have decided to read this article, let’s first acknowledge that the task of planning for the end of your life is not the happiest of things to do. Most likely, you are embarking on this task more for your loved ones than yourself. And that is the correct attitude to have. End-of-life planning is a gift, possibly the last gift you ever give to the people you love. The uncomfortable decisions you make today will ease the uncertainty, confusion, and grief your significant other and children will feel when you can’t tell them what you want. Congratulations for thinking ahead and putting them first.
This article will provide you with information on four of the most important aspects of end-of-life planning. It’s also crucial to know that there are professionals who should help you make these decisions. That includes your financial planner, a lawyer specializing in estate planning, your insurance agent, and your doctor. If you have any questions or need more information, these are the people to call. Moreover, you should make sure these professionals know what your plans are so they can help your loved ones when it is time. For example, your doctor should know your wishes for medical care at the end of life, your lawyer will need to legally execute your will or trust, and your life insurance agent should know who your beneficiaries are. You can make your decisions and get all of your paperwork together on your own if you prefer, but don’t forget to follow through with these people so that all your i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.
The four aspects this article will cover are:
- Setting medical directives
- Appointing representatives for both healthcare and financial decisions
- Creating a Last Will and Testament or a Living Trust
- Setting funeral directives
Let’s spend some time with each of these decisions.
There may be a time in the future when your health is so poor you can’t communicate or make an actionable decision about the kind of medical care you will receive. There are two primary decisions to make here. First, you should appoint one person to be your medical or health care power of attorney (POA). This person will make medical treatment decisions for you when you are unable to do so. Your POA cannot be your doctor or any of your medical team. They may be a family member or a close friend. They must be someone you trust to make the decisions needed if you are in a coma, terminally ill, seriously injured, or at the end of your life. Whoever you choose, be sure to clearly communicate your wishes to them. Don’t make them guess your preferences.
A living will is a good way to help you organize your thoughts around your preferences for medical care in those situations we so often hear about. A living will can be as detailed as you need. The more detailed this document is, the less confusion or disagreement there may be about the choices you would want your loved one or health care POA to make on your behalf.
In determining your wishes, think about your current health and your family history. Are you living with chronic illness? Are there hereditary or common diseases you may contract? Consider the kind of medical situations you may experience at the end of life. Think about what is important to you in those situations. Would you rather live longer in that state or not? Would you want treatment to extend your life no matter what? Would you want treatment only if a cure is possible?
Your living will can address as many as possible end-of-life care decisions as you want. Talk to your doctor if you have questions. Some procedures to think about are:
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
- Mechanical ventilation/intubation
- Tube feeding
- Antibiotics or antiviral medications
- Palliative care
- Organ and tissue donations
- Donating your body for scientific study
At the very least, a living will should include directives on resuscitation and intubation. A Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order will tell doctors not to use CPR if your heart stops beating. A Do Not Intubate (DNI) order tells doctors not to insert a breathing tube if you stop breathing. DNRs and DNIs should be on file with your primary doctor and filed every time you go to any doctor or hospital for treatment.
These medical directives should be in writing and reviewed with your primary doctor and estate planning lawyer. Each state requires different forms and documentation. Once you have them completed, give copies to your doctor, lawyer, and medical POA. Also, keep a copy in a safe place in your house and tell your family members where that is. We’ll discuss some best practice strategies for that later in the article.
Durable Power of Attorney
In addition to appointing a medical POA, you should also designate someone to be responsible for your finances, assets, and legal decisions. This person will be your durable power of attorney. Again, this person will make decisions only when you can’t because of a medical condition. They will have access to your bank accounts and investments. They’ll be able to pay your bills, manage your investments, and submit your taxes. A durable power of attorney’s responsibilities ends upon your death. This person need not be the same person whom you designate as your medical POA.
Last Will and Testament
A will is a legal document that names an executor of your estate. This person will be authorized to distribute your assets to the people you designate in the same document. You can name either your durable POA or medical POA as executor or someone else if you desire. If you have multiple children, you can also appoint co-executors. However, an executor does not have to be a family member. Give that some thought.
A will should also list your assets and liabilities and give directions on how they should be distributed and managed. Your will should name guardians for your children and your pets. It could also include your funeral and burial arrangements. Your will goes into effect when you die.
When you leave a will, your estate will most likely need to go through probate. Your executor will need a lawyer to help with probate, and the process could take months. Since probate is a legal process, your estate will be a public record.
A trust is a more complicated version of a will. A living trust is a legal entity that holds and manages your estate while you are alive and then states how your estate should be distributed after your death.
The contents of trust documents are similar to what is in a will. The difference is how those details are handled. In a trust, you appoint a trustee who will assume control over your assets at the time of your death. Any assets included in a trust will not have to go through probate and are available immediately after your death. A trust will also keep your assets private and protected from litigation.
When establishing a living trust, you need to choose between a revocable and an irrevocable trust. A revocable trust can be modified or revoked at any time by you as the grantor. Any income generated by financial accounts in the trust is distributed to you and counts as income on your tax returns. You can make changes to your trust whenever you want. An irrevocable trust is the opposite. You cannot make changes to any account in this kind of trust. You basically give up ownership to the assets in an irrevocable trust. The advantage is you have lower income to report on your taxes and fewer estate taxes for your beneficiaries to pay.
If you have a complicated estate or minor children, you may need both a will and a living trust. For example, a trust does not specify guardians for minor children but a will does. Neither document is comprehensive, so having both will help you ensure you’ve covered all of your bases.
What do we mean when we say “assets”? Your assets are any tangible or monetary item you own and will be leaving behind for your loved ones. That includes bank accounts, real estate, investments, pensions, retirement funds, life insurance, businesses, furniture, cars, art, and Grandma’s wedding ring. The more detail you put into your will or trust on your assets and who should acquire them, the easier time your executor or trustee will have in getting them to the correct beneficiaries. Remember, you are doing all this for those who inherit your assets, your stuff; make it as easy as possible for them.
We typically leave unpaid debt, bills, and other payables behind when we leave this earth. It helps to have them listed in your will or trust so that your executor can take care of them as soon as possible. This could be your mortgage, home equity loans, credit card debt, business debt, or medical bills. The trustee is not responsible to pay the debt from their own pocket but to use any cash left in the trust to make good on the debt.
This is probably the most uncomfortable part of end-of-life planning. It’s hard to envision your own funeral. But these decisions will be the hardest for your loved ones as well. You will make the process a little less painful by doing it for them.
Start by choosing a funeral home. A good funeral home will help you make the best decisions for your plan. Decide if you would like to be buried or cremated. Choose a burial site. Buy the plot or crypt. Choose a headstone. Plan the service, including location, the viewing, and the burial or scattering of ashes. Choose the music and readings. Choose the pallbearers. Write your obituary. Decide if you’d like to name a charity to accept donations on your behalf.
While you can and should include these arrangements in your will, it’s a good idea to also make sure your trustee or executor knows what you’ve decided and to leave all of the funeral documents in an easy-to-find place at home. Let’s talk more about your end-of-life documents.
Where to Store End of Life Documents
As you finish your end-of-life planning, you will find you’ve got a folder full of new documents you need to store somewhere secure but accessible to you and your loved ones. The best place to store these documents is at home in a fire-proof safe. You could also use a safe deposit box. Make sure to tell your POA and executor/trustee where the safe or bank safety deposit box is, how to get into it and what is inside. Create a list of the documents in the safe and email that list to your POA and executor/trustee to keep in their files.
These documents include:
- Medical Documents
- DNR and DNI
- Durable Power of Attorney for Finances
- Health Care Power of Attorney
- Living Will
- Organ or tissue donor designation
- All doctors’ names and contact information
- List of all current medications
- Health records
- Living Trust documents
- Last Will and Testament
- List of all assets and liabilities, including contact information and beneficiaries for each
- Real Estate Deeds
- Mortgage Papers
- Savings Accounts
- Checking/Bank Accounts
- Investment Accounts
- Life Insurance and other Insurance Polices
- Online Accounts
- Pension/Retirement Accounts
- Outstanding Loan Statements
- Utility Bills
- Credit Card Statements
- Automobile Titles
- Funeral Plans and Papers
- Funeral Home Plans and Invoices
- Cemetery Invoices/Plot Deed
- Instructions for Services
- Other Documents
- Birth Certificates
- Marriage Certificates
- Drivers License
- Tax Documents for the last 5 years
- Safe Deposit Box Information
- List of people to contact with contact information
- Anyone named in your will
- Extended Family
- Business Associates
- Religious & Social Organizations
- List of passwords to all electronic devices, services, social media sites, websites, and apps
This document list is not exhaustive. There may be other pertinent documents that should be added to the safe. Try to think about the decisions your loved ones will need to make when you are gone and how you can help them do that.
End-of-life planning should not be morbid. Just as we plan for other life events like weddings, birthdays, and births, the end of your life deserves your attention as well. If not for you, then for your loved ones.