Death can be a sensitive and often avoided topic of conversation. We don’t know when it will happen, but we all know that at some point in our lives, death will come knocking at our door. The question is, will we be prepared? I can hear some of you saying, “Nope, not going to talk about it.” Please indulge me as I address the elephant in the room for a minute. You may not be ready for death, but you can be prepared from an estate planning and health care perspective.
At Bragg, we frequently address the need for three essential legal documents in your legacy plan: a Last Will and Testament, often combined with a Revocable Trust; a Power of Attorney; and a Health Care Power of Attorney*. Preparing these documents gives you some control over your legacy and your late-life arrangements. It allows you to seek advice from trusted family, friends, and financial and medical professionals. We also suggest you create a “care plan” or “end of life” plan. In this document, you can share the advice you received and your wishes with your powers of attorney and family members, leaving them a roadmap of your preferences regarding medical treatments and finances so they know your wishes and can advocate on your behalf.
I want to share with you a story about my parents and the events surrounding their deaths. I grew up with two older brothers and a younger sister in Huntington, West Virginia, where my parents lived until they died.
In 2007, our family gathered at Holden Beach for a vacation. We took long walks on the beach and hunted for treasured sea glass. One morning, my father and I decided to walk to the pier and back, about four miles. During our time together, Dad told me a story that continued to haunt him at age 79.
Back before the time of cell phones, my father left his dad’s bedside at the hospital to drive home and tell his mom that his father was dying. Upon returning to the hospital, he learned that he had arrived too late. My dad was not beside his father when he died all alone in the hospital. On the beach, I tried to comfort my dad, but I didn’t fully understand the point of his story. Two months later, as I sat beside my father in the hospital, I realized my job was to make him as comfortable as possible and to be next to him as he drew his last breath. He did not want to die alone.
My dad’s death was quick. He became ill, had surgery, and spent one month in the hospital prior to dying. We had time to be together. We reminisced about the past and planned for his release from the hospital. What we didn’t talk about—what we never talked about—were the details for his final days. During this time, we made decisions against his will. When we had him put on a dialysis machine, he was furious. We worked to extend his life until we realized he did not want it extended. We didn’t stop to ask questions about his wishes for his final days until it was too late.
Not only was my mom upset about my dad passing, she was also upset because earlier in the summer, my dad had told her he would be okay if he died. He was happy and had lived a wonderful life. Also, he didn’t want to be buried with her family. He wanted to be cremated and spread over Woodlands, the retirement community that my father was instrumental in founding and constructing in Huntington. My mom was furious. How could he be ready to go? How could he not want to be buried in the family plot? The burial conversation was never finished. In the end, my mom stated that she wanted to be with Dad, and she didn’t want to be spread over Woodlands. My mom’s wish for Dad was for his ashes to stay in the church columbarium until she died.
Upon executing my dad’s Will, we learned that he had not updated his estate documents in years. His Will excluded one of my siblings. The last update was made at a time when they were not speaking. Since then, we’d come back together as a family. Everyone was getting along great. We all knew that not updating his Will had been an oversight that would have mortified our father. Luckily, the bulk of the assets passed to my mom, and she quickly updated her own estate documents!
We still hadn’t learned the importance of digging deep. We didn’t discuss how Mom would want to be cared for when she was diagnosed with renal cancer. We didn’t discuss what we should do when she started showing signs of dementia. We didn’t discuss what to do when she couldn’t perform any of the activities of daily living. Not knowing the details, my siblings and I had to agree on a plan of care. Of the four of us, the closest lived more than six hours from Huntington. We were each involved in Mom’s care to varying degrees.
As a family, we disconnected the stove when we were afraid, she was going to burn the house down, we took her keys when she totaled her car, we hired help when she couldn’t take care of herself, and we watched over video cameras to help her with her medications. But we couldn’t agree on the next steps. My mother had expressed her desire to stay at home. One of my brothers felt he had to keep his promise of letting her die there. It was a 3-to-1 decision when we moved her to assisted living. At that time, she couldn’t do any of the activities of daily living without assistance, her cancer rendered her unable to walk, and her Alzheimer’s had advanced to the point of hallucinations. We didn’t ask the hard questions when we had the opportunity.
My mom died a little over seven years after my dad. My parents’ ashes are still in the church columbarium, waiting for my siblings and me to determine how to grant both parents’ wishes.
Often overlooked in end-of-life planning is how you want to spend your final days. When asked, most people will tell you they want a “good death.” That may be defined as a death where you are surrounded by loved ones and are experiencing minimal pain. It may also include sparing loved ones from the burden of caregiving and financial hardship. Much of this will be documented in your care plan. Please remember, your care plan is a document or letter you can use to detail how you would like to be cared for. It is not a legal document, but it should provide more details for your Health Care Power of Attorney.
The key to your care plan is to talk with professionals and family about future decisions you may need to make, make the decisions, and share your wishes. Be clear so your family knows your wishes and understands why you’ve made certain choices. For example, had my father prepared a care plan, we may have better understood what medical procedures he was willing to undergo during his final days. Make sure your Health Care Power of Attorney agent is comfortable with your decisions and will follow through with your choices. Having these conversations in advance will provide guidance and lighten the burden for your loved ones when they are having to make health care decisions on your behalf.
In a 2018 study by the Conversation Project, 92% of the people surveyed believe it is important to talk about end-of-life wishes with their loved ones, but only 32% have taken steps to do so. We are asking you to talk with your spouse or partner and your children about your future health and care. Here are some questions to consider—questions I wish I’d asked my parents:
Start with these questions and then dive deeper.
Questions that have a financial component also need to be considered.
If you plan to have your children involved in your care or helping with health care costs, you need to think about how you want to address these needs with them and the impact your needs will have on their life.
In addition to your Will, Trusts, Powers of Attorney, and your care plan, you may also want to document your funeral wishes, family medical history, and your list of accounts and passwords. You might create a legacy letter or an audio or video recording with family stories, weaving in values and lessons that grandchildren and great-grandchildren can enjoy.
A 2021 survey by Caring.com found that only 44% of individuals over age 55 have estate documents; under age 55, that number is closer to 25%. Think back to when you left your children for the first time. If you are like me, you left pages of notes on how to care for your children including phone numbers for neighbors and relatives, food preferences, and bedtime routines. It was a lot of information for one night out at our favorite restaurant! If 75% of individuals under age 55 have no estate planning documents, it seems safe to infer that many parents are leaving detailed babysitting instructions but leaving the court system to determine who will care for their children if they die.
Consider this your official nudge from Bragg. Prepare your estate documents, sign them, know where they are, review them at least every five years, and—I know this is a big one—have age-appropriate conversations with your children about them. Parents and adult children alike have a fear about talking about finances and death. Adult children don’t want to come across as nosy or greedy. Parents don’t want to be a burden. We ask that you please start these conversations. You don’t have to talk numbers. Start at a high level and then go deeper. Perhaps that will make everyone more comfortable.
No matter what, we think it’s important for you to talk about your plans, the decisions you’ve made, and how you hope the documents and decisions will help ease some of the logistical burdens. Share the names of the executors, trustees, powers of attorney. For anyone named in these roles, make sure they understand where they can find the signed documents and if necessary, help them to understand why you made certain decisions. If those decisions might impact your children’s relationships, consider having those discussions with your children now.
Numerous books and articles are written on how to talk with each other about death and money. At a minimum, you need to have signed estate documents, and your executor and trustees need to know where to find the signed documents.
Being prepared can provide you with peace of mind knowing that you’ve done what you can to organize your life, shape your legacy, and leave your family with a roadmap of your preferences. It is a final gift of great value for your loved ones and heirs. We hope our conversation today will help. Prepare for death. Share your stories. Share your dreams and desires for the end of your life and for your heirs and loved ones. Give them the gift of your preparedness.
*North Carolina’s Health Care Power of Attorney includes an advanced directive and living will. Other states may require separate documents. Back to top
This information is believed to be accurate but should not be used as specific investment or tax advice. You should always consult your tax professional or other advisors before acting on the ideas presented here.