Death is a natural part of life Part of my job as a doctor is to help people live vibrant, joyful lives that align with their values. It’s also to help them go through death when it’s their time.
None of us know when death is coming for us, but one thing's for sure: it will happen. Death is a natural part of life and it is the only final outcome. You can do it well and intentionally if you want to, or you can let it happen to you - feeling surprised and unprepared when it comes your way. That’s not what I want for you, so I’ve teamed up with my wonderful friend Jen Walker at Peak Legal Group to write a post that will give you the tools to plan for death your own way. We’ll show you how to take care of your loved ones emotionally, financially and otherwise even during their grief over the loss of you. There are 6 key things to do when it comes to taking ownership of death.
Articulate how you do (and don’t) want to die
Officially state what will happen to your kids if they’re still minors when you pass
Decide how you’ll say goodbye to those you love
Spell out what type of services you want and how they’ll be paid for
Write down what will happen to your money and stuff (aka how you’ll prevent stress and confusion for the people you care about over your possessions)
Make sure the right people have the right information
Say How You (Don’t) Want to Die A Living Will helps you spell out what types of medical treatment you would or would not want leading up to your death. If you were in an end-stage terminal condition with no significant hope of recovery, would you want extraordinary measures taken to prolong your life, regardless of your quality of life? Would you want to donate your organs? In a Living Will, you can provide guidance for your loved ones to let them know your priorities and spare them from the stress and pain of trying to guess what your wishes would be. The Living Will may be a stand-alone document, or it may be contained in a larger document called an Advance Medical Directive, which also names someone as your medical agent who can make decisions on your behalf if you are unable to communicate. When you’re drafting an Advance Medical Directive, you also have the chance to draft something called Final Disposition Instructions. In this document you can identify a “point person” who is authorized to make arrangements (this can minimize confusion if there are multiple adult children), specify whether you want to be buried vs. cremated, provide any special instructions regarding your celebration of life ceremony, and indicated if you’ve made any pre-arrangements, etc. Some people even identify photos to be used in an obituary, music to be played at a ceremony, etc. This is a great chance to take the burden of decision-making off of your loved ones during a time when they’ll already feel burdened by grief. Make It Official Who Will Take Your Kids If you’re lucky enough to be raising kids with a partner, this might seem like something you don’t have to worry about. But what happens if you and your partner are both in an accident? Or both get sick and die? In Pennsylvania at least, a Nomination of Guardian (either contained in a Will or as a stand-alone document) spells out who you’d like custody to pass to in the event of your death. My advice is not to leave this to your family to work out or guess about in what would be a time of crisis. Take away the ambiguity and write it out so that you make sure what’s best for your kids is what happens if you’re not around.
If there’s someone you really don’t want custody to pass to, you should write this down and notarize it, too. Many attorneys can help you put a “Guardian Exclusion” document in place and keep it confidential unless it is ever needed. Write a Letter. Record a Video. The saying goes something like “pictures don’t matter until they’re all you have left.” When you die, your family and friends will be aching for bits and pieces of you to comfort them. Birthday cards you wrote years ago, special notes, funny photos, etc. will be incredibly meaningful for them and will help to ease the pain of your passing. Now, you have the option to record videos and audios as well. One of the things I love about Jen at Peak Legal Group in West Chester is that she gives all of her clients the option to record a video in her office to leave for their loved ones. She’ll ask about their favorite memories and more. The end result is a beautiful video of her clients talking about what matters most to them. It usually becomes the family’s most precious possession after their death. You can do this at home if you’d like by setting up a phone and capturing some footage of yourself. You can send it to your loved ones ahead of time and even ask them to do it back. Jen offers her clients a way to store the video until their passing if they’d like to do that as well. If you decide not to hire Jen or another lawyer to help you and want to DIY this, you should start now by recording everyone at family events each year. These videos are fun to look back on just for posterity’s sake, and become even more meaningful if someone passes away. The great part about taking time to intentionally talk about memories and life’s meaning together while you’re alive is that they actually enrich your relationships. I will say there’s something about being interviewed formally by a non-blood relative that actually has a way of capturing meaningful tidbits you don’t normally hear at the dinner table. You can talk with Jen more if you want to know about her unique approach. Either way, just record something. You’ll be glad you did. Get Life Insurance (and Get Healthy) For around $20-$70 a month you can get up to $100,000 in life insurance, depending on your health and your age. This money can help to cover expenses associated with your death and provide for family when you die. Getting life insurance requires filling out an application as well as a physical examination and blood draw. You can usually google and find a broker near you. Your car or home insurance company may even offer life insurance. Call your agent to check. Warning: There’s nothing like a life insurance exam to highlight the health issues you’ve got going on. You can reapply for a different rate and policy every 5 years, so if you’re not happy with your results or the rating you got as a result of chronic health conditions, resolve to take care of your health and get healthier within the next 60 months. This will not only make it easier for you to get less expensive coverage in the future, it’ll help ensure that you are actually around longer for your loved ones. I specialize in helping people improve their health and erase chronic health issues like type 2 diabetes, etc. Schedule with me if you want to start working together to keep you healthy for the long haul. Name a Power of Attorney A Power of Attorney document allows you to name someone you trust as your “agent” who can “step into your shoes” and manage your affairs (financial, legal, general) on your behalf if you’re incapacitated. This should be someone you trust completely, since they would have significant powers over your affairs and your property. Keep in mind that the Power of Attorney is only effective while you are alive; after you die, your “agent” under the Power of Attorney would no longer have any authority to act. At that point, the Executor named in your Will would take over as the legal representative of your “estate.” List of bank accounts and assets with a benefactor / co-owner Create a list of important accounts and share it with your people. Where are your bank accounts? Retirement accounts? 401ks? Name two beneficiaries at least to the accounts that you can. This will make money in these accounts automatically pass to the people you want it to without requiring much extra work. Create a Trust
For some folks, it makes sense to create a Trust in addition to a Will. There are a number of reasons people might create a trust, such as centralizing their assets so there aren’t a lot of moving parts after they die, or making sure certain property avoids the court-supervised Probate process. If you have questions about trusts or whether a trust might be beneficial for you, you should speak with a qualified estate planning attorney to make sure you understand your options. Trusts can be great tools but they aren’t necessary or even appropriate for everyone, and it’s really not something you should DIY.
It’s our hope that this is a good start for you. If you’ve got more questions, contact Jen or I for more info. We both do free phone calls to help you determine if we’re the right people to help you with your legal questions and health.
Jen at Peak Legal
Dr. Kate www.doctorkatehenry.com