Makeover Monday: Are Your Affairs in Order?

I’m offering something of a downer topic this Monday, and I apologize for that, but I have my reasons–two, in fact: Beverly and Kathleen.

Beverly was one of my best friends for 15 years. Estranged from her own family, she adopted mine and often shared holidays and other special events with us. We all loved her and she loved us. Beverly died four years ago at the far-too-young age of 52. When she was diagnosed with colorecetal cancer, she assured me she had her “affairs in order”, but she didn’t. I don’t know if she thought she had taken care of things, or she just really didn’t want to deal with it, but it made her final days a living hell for those of us trying to ensure she received proper care and that her wishes were honored.

Kathleen was also a good friend, one I had known for 23 years. Kathleen died yesterday with her family at her side. (I had visited her just two hours earlier.) Like Beverly, Kathleen did not have her “affairs in order”, which has kept her family’s hands tied in trying to handle things over the past few weeks. It will all work out okay in the end, but it just didn’t have to be this difficult.

None of us likes to think about it, but estate planning is something all of us should do, no matter our ages, our marital status, or the number of assets we do or don’t have. We should do it simply to take the burden from our families and ensure that our desires and wishes are honored.

I won’t even pretend to know all the intricacies of estate planning. I *do* know that there are two aspects we need to consider:
1) A plan for living
2) A plan for…well, not living

Pause for a moment of re-emphasis: None of what follows constitutes legal advice. Please consult an attorney for that, not someone whose legal knowledge comes from Perry Mason, Petrocelli, and endless reruns of Law & Order.

Our living plan should include the following (at minimum):

a) a durable power of attorney, which basically enables someone to handle financial matters on your behalf. In preparing this document (or having it prepared), you can choose to limit its effect to only those situations in which a doctor certifies that you are unable to handle your affairs, or you can set up an active power of attorney that allows someone to take care of issues for you in the event you are temporarily incapacitated or unavailable. Without a POA, your family or other survivors will have to petition the courts for the right to transact business for you.

b) a medical power of attorney or health-care proxy, which appoints a person to make health care decisions for you if you are unable to make them for yourself. This includes consenting to give, withhold, or cease any medical treatments or procedures, including those that are life-sustaining. If the person you wish to designate as your proxy is not a family member, you will also want to include a statement that this person is allowed to visit you in the hospital. (In the U.S., this is especially important for gay/lesbian couples and straight-but-unmarried couples, in the event the hospital has a family-only rule, or if the family chooses to be…difficult.)

c) a living will details the types of medical treatment you do and do not want and can be used in the event you are unable to speak for yourself.

One important note: in addition to completing the necessary paperwork and filings, be sure that you discuss each of these issues with your family members, especially those you are designating as your “agents”, so that everyone understands your wishes and their roles in your future.

You can find out more about power of attorney issues at nolo.

Okay, that takes care of the living plan. What about the alternative? Ick, but let’s cover it anyway.

A will is a road map for distributing your assets and property, establishing guardianship for your children, managing any property on behalf of your children, and ensuring all of the above are done properly. Without a written, signed, and notarized will, your family and/or loved ones will have to navigate the court system, which could cost countless hours and dollars, not to mention emotional hardship.

If you don’t have many assets or personal property and don’t need to establish guardianship for children, you may be able to use a simple no-frills will using a standard form such as the one available on nolo.

If, however, you have children, or if you have complicated distribution issues, you need to work with an attorney. (Personally, I’d consult with an attorney either way.)

Two notes:
1) Remember that, by law, pets are property too! Be sure to include them in your will.
2) As with the living plan, discuss your will with your family and loved ones so that everyone understands your wishes.

All of this is depressing to think about, but making plans now can save your loved ones a lot of stress and potential legal hassles at a time when they are least likely to be able to handle it well. If you haven’t gotten your “affairs” in order, I encourage you to do so NOW. I met with an attorney not long after Beverly died and for one fee, he set up both the living and the not-living plans. It was neither easy, nor pleasant to work through, but I feel much better having it all in place.

Again, I’m sorry for such an intense subject, but I truly did feel it was a very necessary topic for the day. (And I promise to choose something cheerier for next week!)

With that, I’m going to do everything in my power to spend the remainder of today celebrating life. I hope you will do the same.