Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Making Those Dreaded Final Arrangements

It's something we have to accept. We don't have to like it. We sure don't have to embrace it. But we do have to accept it. We all have a limited number of days on earth. We will all leave this place. We will all die. The richest and most powerful people at any given time in history have not had enough money or power to avoid death.

How we face this fact, and the steps we take while we're alive, can make a world of difference to those we leave behind.

I'll be honest. I've been blessed with parents who have always been very open about living and dying. Maybe being from the rural South has something to do with that. I don't know, but I do know that when I was in my 30s and they were in their 60s, they sat me down and told me steps they had already taken in case they ever needed to go to a nursing home. They took that possible, eventual decision out of my hands while they were in good health, both body and mind, to make that joint call. They sat my brother down and had the same discussion with him.

Because I'm the oldest, I know where their important papers are. I know the system they use to pay their bills in case I ever need to step in and take care of their business. I've been added to their bank account now while they are able to take care of their own business in case something happens suddenly and they are no longer able to. I won't need to jump through hoops then because they initiated all that before it happened. They are now both in their early 80s. They bought their cemetery plots a long time ago. They bought plots for all of us so we could all be together. And then told us about it. (Insert annoying smiley face here!)

They have wills, and while I haven't seen them, we have had some discussion about them. I know my parents well enough to know they will treat my brother and I equally and the help they have given him over the years will be weighed in those wills because I haven't needed the same assistance. I also know that they have taken his history with crack into account, and even though he has done miraculously through recovery, they have taken steps to protect their estate in case he relapses...nothing will fall into the hands of dealers. Not if they can help it!

Not everyone has been as blessed with such proactive and practical parents as me. We've all seen those families, and they may be ours, where the last parent dies and a once close family is destroyed. Grudges and hostilities that were buried, surface, and those that have always been out in the open explode. We've heard, and maybe said, "If mama and daddy could see this, they'd be so disappointed in us." We vow it won't happen in our own families. But do we take the necessary steps to ensure that, or do we just trust our survivors will love us and each other enough to stay close, no matter what?

No matter how close your family is now, please consider the idea that there's something about death that can bring out the worst in people. Sometimes people don't wait for death; potential heirs can start arguing over estates and who gets what while parents are still alive. There is something about the idea of "inheriting" that can bring greed out of the closet. We will all leave estates. Grandma's antique tea set can be the only thing of "value" and ten people can suddenly think they have a right to it. Our estate may be so small we don't think of it as an "estate," but whatever you own and leave behind is your "estate." Any debt you leave is part of that estate and will have to be paid from your assets.

That said, no one, no one, is entitled to an inheritance. Nothing, technically, becomes an inheritance until after death. Until that moment it is yours to use, enjoy, spend, do with what you want. You earned it, maybe even inherited some, but it's yours. Not anyone else's.  Keep in mind, though, that any heirs may not understand that and they may not understand some of your other wishes, so...

While you are here and of sound mind, make plans. And, side note, writing a will will not tempt fate and cause your immediate demise. For many people, it actually brings a sense of peace to have wishes in writing. It is possible you might be able to say, "So-and-so wrote their will and they were dead in a month." More than likely So-and-so had a terminal illness and was getting affairs in order. Try not to wait that long. If you do, there's a chance your heirs may contest your will if they don't like it and say you weren't in your right mind when you wrote it because you were under the influence of heavy medications. That happens. Don't let it happen to you if you can prevent it.

Have those difficult discussions while you are here and can. Let your wishes be known and WHY. That why is crucial. If you have more than one heir and you've helped one out but the others haven't needed it, if you plan to equalize things in your will, let them all know this. If you plan to forgive debts, make that plain. If you have promised certain items to certain people, make that known. Ten heirs cannot all inherit your Purple Heart. Let all heirs know, in advance, who is to receive what and write it down. These are but a few examples of what needs to be considered. Add to the list and customize it to fit your family and particular situation.

If you are reading this and you have minor children, write down plans, now, who is to take care of them and, if possible, make financial provisions for that care. It should go without saying that you will need to discuss all this with the person you want named their guardian. Iron this possibility out NOW. You do NOT want the state ironing it out for you later! As your children age, keep revisiting this portion of your will and make necessary adjustments. If you have pets, you may want to decide who is to take them in and make financial provisions for their care also. And, of course, discuss the care of your pets with the person you would like to have adopt them. Do not let this come as a "surprise" to someone. It might not have a pleasant ending.

While you are here, now is the time to also consider what you want done with your body upon death, any special instructions that need to be known regarding your funeral, and even how you wish to die...to the point you might have any control. Do you want extraordinary measures taken? If so, what measures are you comfortable with? Do you want "Do Not Resuscitate" orders in place, or not? Do you want to be in a hospital, Hospice facility, or at home? Who do you want to be on hand to help with your most personal needs? Put it all in writing, after discussing and making your wishes known verbally with those who need to know. Do you want your organs donated or do you want to die with all your original equipment? Do you want your body donated to research? Do you want to be cremated or buried? Where do you want your final resting place to be? Is there a particular funeral home you want to handle you or is there one that better not touch you? Write it down and make sure to tell the people who will actually make these arrangements when the time comes. If you have a funeral, are there particular people you want participating, hymns sung, poems or Scriptures read? Have those discussions and write it down.

As a pastor, I cannot begin to stress the need to tell your family any special instructions for your funeral. Whoever conducts your funeral will ask your family and it puts them in a sad position if they say, "They never said anything about what they wanted." Even if they think you had a nice funeral, they'll never know if you looked down and were pleased.

I also cannot stress enough the need to protect those you love even in death. See, all this isn't really as much about protecting your estate as it is protecting your family. Take steps now to keep your family, as much as possible, intact after you die, or, fail to take steps and ensure your family falls apart. Failure to plan for this inevitable event may actually put the wheels in motion for the family you brought into the world and dearly love to be irreparably ruined. Destroyed. And you won't be able to right it.

Now, get everything in writing, but do it legally. You want everything as airtight as possible. I want to thank Rich McDonald for proofing this and adding his legal expertise. Rich also sent me a couple of links to share.

Laws vary from state to state. One word of caution: both these sites offer do-it-yourself forms. These are not recommended. Please work with a lawyer. If you simply cannot afford a lawyer, Rich McDonald offer's this advice, "If you think you cannot afford a lawyer, there are at least two potential sources of free or reduced cost legal services in your community.  First of all, you may qualify for free legal services through your community's legal aid society; if you need help finding a local legal aid group, visit the Legal Services Corporation's web site at www.lsc.gov/.  Second, many local city and county bar associations sponsor programs through which local attorneys provide free (pro bono) legal services or services at very substantially reduced costs.  That local bar association's number is in your phonebook and most associations have a web site you can easily find through a Google search."

To find the lawyer you need, this is his recommended site.

This site is his recommended site for good legal information about getting your affairs in order, including articles on living wills and medical powers of attorney.

I'm 52 and have melanoma, stage 3b. I may live another 30 years and die peacefully in my sleep. My melanoma may kick in with a vengeance and I could be dead before 2012 ends. I could get killed in car crash today. I could be found dead over my computer while I type this. None of us ever knows and we have no guarantees. We may have a houseful of young children and not see morning. It happens. I don't wish it on anyone but it happens. We can be in great health when we go to bed and still die in our sleep. I've seen these scenarios in other people's lives, and you probably have, too. I say this as a person of faith and my faith will not prevent any of these things from happening. Don't rely on being a person of faith to ensure that you see at least 70 years and enjoy good health for all of them. Recall people you've known who were also people of faith but who died young. It happens.

One of the greatest ways you can show the people in your life you love them, is to make plans for your death, your estate after your death, and to let them know your plans. Have your plans and wishes in writing, legally, and make sure people who need copies have them. As your life and family moves forward and changes, revisit your plans and make revisions...again letting your family know of any changes you make and why.

One of the greatest things you can leave your loved ones is peace. All the money and assets in the world cannot buy harmony and family unity as your passing is grieved. Don't let bad planning, or no planning, add to their grief and pain. Don't trust them to work together if you've given them nothing to work with.

Do the hard work now. While you can.

Have the difficult discussions now. While you can.

Put everything in writing now. While you can.

Be grateful you can do it now.

Now, gratefully, do it.

Thank you, Rich, for all your input with this post.

I am grateful.