In the winter of 2014, I was asked to help an elderly family friend with day-to-day financial and other end-of-life issues. His health was failing and he was alone – no wife, no children. That same week I was coincidentally made aware of the book “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande. In the book, Dr. Gawande gives a brutally honest overview of the heart-wrenching ordeal of aging and dying. My experience with our family friend and the real-world scenarios described in the book coalesced to teach a valuable lesson: it is impossible to overestimate the importance of planning for the end, regardless of the circumstances. This lesson is reinforced constantly in our day-to-day experience as we help clients and their families through the process.
This is not just about money. Even though wealthy families don’t have the stress of how to pay for care, there are countless non-financial details to attend to. Families unable to pay for care carry additional stress, making it difficult to focus on everything else. Regardless of the financial situation, taking the time and making the effort for end-of-life planning is not for the dying. It is a gift the dying can give to their loved ones. A gift we give to those helping us navigate the sometimes heart-wrenching final days.
Nor is this simply a matter of “having a will,” as we often hear. Estate planning is an important piece, but it’s just that, a piece of a much larger puzzle. I never fully appreciated this until I had to live it myself. I was fortunate that our friend had diligently planned for his decline both financially and administratively. But even with his detailed diligence, there was still so much to do: pay bills, open mail, make phone calls, research retirement and health care facilities, file tax returns, communicate with concerned friends. I can’t imagine trying to do all this on top of figuring out how to pay or making health care and financial decisions without clear directives. For many, the reality is that it becomes overwhelming. In those cases, things are often missed and mistakes are often made, adding stress on top of stress.
How can you give this gift? Here are a few key ways:
First and foremost, start the process early and revisit it often. Good communication is paramount. These issues can be complex and time consuming, and each topic requires thorough communication and diligent execution. Procrastination often leads to problems, and in too many cases it can lead to family strife. It’s quite likely that one family member’s assumptions differ from another’s, so talking it through is the only way to get on the same page.
Execute estate plan documents and update them as often as needed. “I did a will years ago” is probably not enough. A good estate plan includes a last will and testament, a durable power of attorney, a health care power of attorney, a living will, and in some cases, a trust agreement. The benefits of each of these are well beyond the scope of this article, but the investment of time and money for a thorough, updated estate plan is well worth the benefits to you and your family in the end. In our experience, far too many are walking around with inadequate, outdated documents.
Get a handle on the finances, and prepare those who will have to take over when you are unable to manage them. Having lots of money helps tremendously, but most people don’t have endless financial resources. Understanding assets, liabilities, income streams, how bills get paid, and the overall budget helps immensely when it’s time to step in and assist. It’s a good idea to bring someone in the loop before they have to take over. That enables time for discussion and clarification about the overall financial situation and how to access information. It’s a nightmare to be tasked with managing someone else’s finances with no access to key documents, passwords, bank accounts, etc. Documentation of this important information is greatly underappreciated.
Communicate preferences to decision makers. Our decision-making abilities decline significantly in times of stress and grief. When multiple parties are involved, like siblings, a lack of clarity often leads to conflict. When key decisions and preferences have been articulated, and even better, documented, it makes the process smoother and less likely to descend into an argument. Estate plan documents cover lots of important topics, but others need to be specified separately. Preferences about where to live, health care arrangements, palliative care, and funeral arrangements are a few key items to discuss with loved ones. By the way, a prepaid funeral is a time and stress saver that most funeral homes offer.
Facing the issues associated with aging and dying is not fun for anyone. But we all have to face mortality sooner or later. Don’t tarnish your legacy by leaving a mess for those you love. Instead, give the gift of planning for the end.