When Taya Dunn Johnson’s husband died suddenly at the age of 37, her world was completely shattered. Worse, she and her husband never thought they would have to plan for this type of life event so early. He had no will, adequate life insurance, or other end-of-life documents. Some of her financial accounts, including her mortgage, were linked to her husband’s bank account, but Johnson couldn’t access them immediately and was locked out of the account after an attempt.* She struggled with this while planning a funeral that she had no pre-planned funds, trying to grieve and care for her 3 year old son. “When things aren’t legal, it places a tremendous emotional and logistical burden on the surviving relatives, particularly the surviving spouse,” Johnson said. “It’s amazing, overwhelming and sometimes annoying.”
Unfortunately, most people don’t like to talk about death, let alone their own plan. But talking to loved ones about end-of-life wishes is incredibly important, even for those who are currently healthy. In addition to legal matters, medical care and concerns should also be discussed.
Why are legal and financial end-of-life plans important?
Getting your finances and legal affairs in order before you die will only make things easier for your grieving loved ones. Without end-of-life documents, loved ones must unravel the complicated logistics while grieving their loss.
How do I make legal and financial plans for the end of life?
You should work with an attorney to prepare a will and financial power of attorney. A will explains how your assets will be distributed after your death and may designate a guardian for your minor children. A Power of Attorney designates a person to make financial decisions during your lifetime and to manage your affairs when you are no longer able to do so.
Gather important information and paperwork like your social security number, living records, and insurance information for easy access by loved ones after you die. You should also provide online usernames and passwords. “My husband’s death has taught me what additional information I may need to contact companies and terminate certain accounts,” Johnson said. “Having a document of online passwords, especially for all email accounts, cannot be overstated.”
Why are medical end-of-life guidelines so important?
Everyone has a different idea of how much medical intervention they want when they get sick. “For some people, the most important thing is to stay alive, no matter what condition they are in,” said Catherine Amarante, RN, honors care decision-making specialist at Dartmouth Health.
“For others, there is a whole spectrum of what quality of life means. It’s a very personal thing.”
Some people want every possible medical intervention. For others, it may depend on the likelihood of recovery and quality of life.
If you don’t make end-of-life plans and an illness or accident leaves you unable to make decisions, decisions may be made for you that don’t necessarily reflect your point of view. Many states have dependents regulations that appoint your next of kin to be the decision maker. Unfortunately, this person may not agree with your way of thinking. This, along with their emotional state, can lead to medical interventions that you would not have wanted.
The lack of end-of-life documents also puts an unnecessary burden on your loved one’s shoulders. Having a clear plan to follow can make this difficult situation a little easier.
How do I make plans for end-of-life medical care?
Living wills are legal documents that explain what medical care you want when you are unable to make decisions for yourself. “What we’re trying to do with these documents is to find out what matters most to you so doctors can make decisions when they’re unsure about your recovery,” Amarante said.
Advanced statements consist of two important parts:
Living Will – Determines what medical care you will or will not receive to keep you alive. It may also include organ donation and pain management. Health Power of Attorney (HCPA) – Appoints someone to make your medical decisions if you are no longer able to make them yourself. (This document has different names in different states, such as Medical Power of Attorney.)
When choosing your HCPA, the most important qualification is that you believe the person is what you want. “You should choose someone who you trust to make decisions based on what you want, not what they want for you,” Amarante said. She also noted the ability to advocate for you, collaborate with your medical team and understand complex situations.
Once you’ve decided on an HCPA, talk to them. “You can say, ‘You may never have to, but just in case, I want you to make decisions for me because I know you love me,'” Amarante said.
It is also important to obtain their consent. No one should be given this task unless they are familiar with it.
While you can hire an attorney to fill out these forms, it is not required. Most states have their own versions that are free to use. Keep the original copy of these forms at home and give one copy to your HCPA and one to your doctor.
Forms for medical prescriptions at the end of life
The following are medical orders that may need to be signed by a doctor and others depending on your state’s laws.
DNRs and POLST forms are not intended for those who are currently healthy, but for people who are terminally ill or are nearing the natural end of their lives.
Eighteen months after the death of Johnson’s husband, her father was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. After learning how difficult things can be without planning, Johnson and her father made sure he appointed his daughter his HCPA and made both a will and a living will. The ability to make her father’s medical decisions was immensely helpful to Johnson.
Financial and legal planning also took a lot of stress off. “While it is always difficult to deal with these matters following the death of a loved one, my experience managing the lives of my husband and father has been like night and day,” Johnson said. “Taking the time to talk to loved ones about the end of life before you die should be viewed as an act of love.”
*It is important in the event of the death of a loved one to seek the advice of a lawyer on the proper management of bank accounts and other assets.
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