The Well-Planned Life: End of Life Planning
For all the complicated emotions that arise when one thinks of end-of-life planning, it's important to remember the goal of that planning—to reduce, as much as possible, the grief and stress your survivors will feel by making clear decisions about these matters now.
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Janis Calton is 61 years old, living at home with her mother. She has no children, spouse or close family other than her elderly mother, whom she cares for on a daily basis. Recently, the idea struck her that if she were involved in a car accident or some other scenario in which she were incapacitated or, at the very worst, passed away, who would take care of her mother? Who would inherit her estate? How would her remains be dealt with?
“There were decisions to be made,” she says. “Should I open a trust to avoid probate or do I invest it in a charity?”
It’s not an easy topic to discuss or even think about, but the end of one’s life is not just an extremely emotional matter, but also a highly complex legal and financial process. It requires a lot of careful planning—whether the plans involve yourself or an elderly family member—ranging from long-term healthcare, to funeral or cremation arrangements and estate planning.
“For several years, I would think on and off if I should have a will or not,” says Calton. “I just kind of talked it around for a while until I ended up doing it.”
After meeting with an attorney, Calton was able to work out what would happen to the portion of the house she owned with her mother, where her other assets would go and, if there was anything left over, to which charity she would like to donate in her memory.
“It has given me peace of mind, more than I would have thought,” she says. “Then again, my situation is different because I don’t have kids to make decisions, but I feel pretty good that things won’t be in limbo and things will be handled quickly.”
The Legalities of Dying
Law professor James Pietsch from the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii at Manoa says it’s a good idea to at least have a will that specifies how you would like your assets dispersed, and who will make your decisions should you become incapacitated.
“Our motto is plan for the worst, and expect the best,” he says. “Because you’re not just going to die and ‘boom,’ your assets are going to be distributed.”
Pietsch specializes in elder-care law, and helps senior citizens plan for more than just their final wishes. “Our philosophy is to anticipate living an extended life where you’re going to become incapacitated physically and mentally,” he says. “We look at it more than just planning out [the dispersal] of your assets, but also your extended life.”
Pietsch says that, in many other states, power of attorney rests with the spouse or closest relative should you become incapacitated or pass away. But in the state of Hawaii, you must articulate in writing who will be your advocate should you become incapacitated.
“Most people never make those documents,” he says, referring to having an advocate who can make tough decisions according to your wishes. “If you don’t, Hawaii has a unique system in selecting a surrogate, and it’s not the next of kin.”
Piestch explains that the doctor providing care to the incapacitated party must gather the patient’s family—spouse, children, siblings and so on—to form a panel that selects a decision maker. But even when someone is elected, there are other bureaucratic steps that person must go through to make decisions. For this reason it is essential to put down in writing who you want calling the shots for you.
It may also be worth considering a living will, known in Hawaii as an advanced healthcare directive. “There are two parts to the healthcare directive: one is the designation of a healthcare agent. Where you say, ‘In the event that I cannot make any healthcare decisions for myself, my spouse or my children will make them for me,’” explains attorney Heather Conahan, who specializes in estate law. “The second part of it is what I affectionately call the ‘pull the plug decision.’ That’s where you say, ‘If I’m comatose, brain dead or whatever, it is my choice if I want to have the plug pulled.’” This decision can also be left up to your healthcare agent if you desire.
Once you have decided who is going to be your advocate and what you would like to happen should you become incapacitated, it’s time to tackle one of the biggest headaches in these scenarios: your estate and how you want it handled once you’re gone.