Considerations for Estate Planning for the Terminally Ill

 

Life is unpredictable and uncertain – we all know this – but many of us struggle with these facts on a daily basis.  I think planning can help prepare all of us – whether we are healthy or ill – for the inevitable and help us take stock of what matters most in our lives.  Yes, I have even gone so far as to write about law as a healing profession in this regard!  When someone has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, the unpredictable and uncertain qualities of life take on a whole new meaning.  A conversation with a knowledgeable and sensitive attorney can help to provide individuals and families facing terminal illness with some certainty in a stage of life that is usually very difficult.  Confirming estate plans or making them for the first time, as well as making arrangements regarding health care matters like medical durable powers of attorney and advance directives, can contribute to precious peace of mind.  What many people tend to overlook is the value of this process and making the arrangements in advance.  Benefits for the ill person include a sense that “loose ends” are tied up, and a similar benefit for the survivors is gained by knowing that plans are in place and that there is a “known universe” of how to take care of practical matters after a person has passed away.  This leaves more space and time for survivors to grieve.  Fortunately, there are excellent resources in the Denver metro area to support individuals of all ages in the grieving process.  Check out the Heartlight Center, a great community resource.

What do the terminally ill need to consider?  Here’s a short list:

  • health care power of attorney (to name an agent to provide informed consent for treatment);
  • Colorado advance directives (living will);
  • the Vulcan green MOST form (Medical Orders for Scope of Treatment);
  • general (financial) power of attorney;
  • a will (to identify your beneficiaries and who will be the personal representative in charge of carrying out your wishes in your will);
  • a trust for minor or disabled children or for minor grandchildren.

These are usually not easy things to discuss, but most people benefit from this conversation and planning, coming away with reported peace of mind.  The legal issues may seem straightforward and they often are, but they may be entangled with emotional, financial and medical matters which tend to complicate things during a time of stress and anxiety.  I also recommend people facing terminal illness and their families take advantage of the many resources available to chart the difficult emotional waters of this time.  During the times when I was health care agent for my father, I found two books in particular very helpful.  One of my favorite books written by a doctor is Dying Well,  by Ira Byock, M.D., (1997) and another book of his I have blogged about is titled  The Four Things That Matter Most: A Book About Living.  The Four Things are about saying what really matters (“please forgive me,” I forgive you,” “thank you,’ and “I love you”)  before a person passes away, and Dying Well is about reclaiming dignity in the dying process and providing compassionate care for and presence with a dying loved one.

Another doctor/author I like is Jerome Groopman, M.D., who has written several books and is a contributor to The New Yorker . The Anatomy of Hope (on my bookshelf, about terminal illness) published in 2004, and Your Medical Mind,   published in 2011, about how to choose your medical decisions wisely, are especially helpful to individuals and loved ones facing terminal illness.

People facing terminal illness may not want to change anything about how they live their lives, or they may want to rearrange things entirely.  These are entirely individual decisions and each of us faces our own mortality differently.  Getting sound and sensitive advice about financial and legal matters as part of an estate planning consultation with an attorney can help bring some of the stress of the unknown into the “known world,” and ease the burden of uncertainty during difficult times.

©Barbara Cashman, LLC  www.DenverElderLaw.org

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