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End of life planning

Why end of life planning is important and how to start the process

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Written by Zack Reeves
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According to the CDC, around 60 percent of U.S. adults have no plan in place for the end of their lives. Consequently, close friends and family are left to sort through personal belongings, funeral arrangements and asset distribution while they’re mourning.

Solidifying an end of life plan can ease the minds of everyone involved. Your loved one’s final wishes can be known and recorded as an objective legal document. This gives you and your family a map to follow.

This process involves discussing all the conditions surrounding someone’s death before they die, as opposed to during or after. Having these discussions up front can make the process easier.

This article explains some of the benefits of end of life planning and explains the different parts of it: advance health care directives, memorialization and burial, financial affairs and preferred location of death.

old woman sitting looking at paperwork

Making health care decisions

An advance health care directive is a form that tells you how your loved ones want to be taken care of, in the case that they’re unable to do so themselves. Advance health care directives are sometimes known as living wills. An advance health care directive or living will is different from a power of attorney, which ensures that an agent of your loved one’s choosing can make medical decisions that are not covered by a living will.

If they’re incapacitated by a disease, an advance care directive will specify whether or not they wish to receive medical treatments such as:

  • CPR
  • Artificial respiration
  • Artificial hydration
  • Feeding tubes
  • Ventilators

Advance care directives allow adults of any age to control how they spend their final days.

These forms, once signed by two witnesses, are legal documents with legal power in the United States. While they don’t force your loved one’s doctor to comply, a doctor can’t be legally prosecuted for doing so.

However, not all situations will be covered by the advance health care directive. In the cases that aren’t covered, doctors can consult the health care proxy.

Health care proxy
Named in the advance care directive, the proxy (sometimes known as an “agent”) is legally able to make health care decisions on behalf of the dying person in the event that they’re unable to do so for themselves. The proxy can be anyone: friend, family, it doesn’t matter. This applies only when the advance health care directive doesn’t cover the situation.

How to do it
Download and print the advance health care directive form for your state. After talking it over with your loved one, ask them to fill out the questions or help them fill it out. Have two witnesses over 18 years old present when your loved one signs it.

The document is legally recognized once your loved one and witnesses have signed it, so you’re not required to take it to a lawyer. However, it’s always recommended to get legal consultation on these issues, if you’re able.

Make several copies for yourself, your loved one, concerned family members, your loved one’s physician and faith leaders. Discuss the advance health care directive with your loved one’s physician, and make sure they understand what your loved one wants to avoid confusion.

man filling out legal papers

Handling the memorial

As your loved ones age, it’s important to know how they want to be memorialized and buried.

While many people still prefer solemn, formal funerals or mourning ceremonies, others are beginning to lean more towards parties and celebrations of life.

Knowing the kind of memorialization that your loved one wants will take the decision making off your shoulders when the time comes to carry out their wishes. Detailing these wishes as part of a legal document will ensure that your loved one is honored and memorialized as they want.

If you’re concerned about the cost of funerals, create a funeral plan at a funeral home. You can work with the funeral home to prepay for all funeral costs, so your family is not burdened with the responsibility of figuring out how they'll pay for your loved one’s funeral.

How to do it
Find your state on this list from the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Depending on your state’s law, you may be able to make a legally binding document guaranteeing that your loved one’s wishes are carried out. Some states grant the health care proxy (named in the advance health care directive) the power to make funeral decisions for the deceased.

older woman sitting with two others going over papers

Distributing wealth and assets

According to the AARP, 60 percent of U.S. adults don’t have a will. Without this proof of your loved one’s financial wishes, control of their assets goes to the state they live in, which will distribute it among their family per state law.

A last will and testament solidifies your loved one’s wishes for how their property and wealth gets distributed after their death. Not having a will to go by can leave family members feeling slighted and resentful at their share of the loved one’s assets.

If they want to donate to a cause, a business or a university, the will can accomplish that. A will may also state that the deceased wants to establish a charitable trust in their name, distributing out their money over time to certain individuals.

Getting your loved one’s financial affairs in order will decrease the stress that the family has to feel later.

How to do it
Talk to a lawyer about setting up your last will and testament. Come with ideas on:

  • Who your loved one’s executor will be
  • Who your loved one’s beneficiaries will be
  • What your loved one wants to leave to them
  • Guardians for their minor children if they have any
  • Two witnesses who will attest to watching your loved one sign the will
older woman laying in bed with her daughter reading to her

Considering the final days

When someone’s health begins to fail, often the first reaction is to take them to the hospital. However, many people may prefer to spend their final days at home or another familiar space.

It’s worth having a conversation with your loved one about where and how they’d like to pass their final moments. Consider bringing in hospice care to make your loved one as comfortable as possible.

How to do it
While this conversation will be difficult to have, all you really need to do is ask. While it’s possible that your loved one will not have an opinion on the matter, they may have already thought about it. Maybe they’d like to pass away in the sunroom, not the living room. Maybe they’d prefer to be alone, or with a few close friends, instead of surrounded by the entire family.

You never know unless you ask. Press for details so that you’ll know exactly what to do when the time comes.

If possible, get this information in writing so that you can distribute it to other loved ones.

Bottom line

While end of life planning doesn’t make the prospect of losing your loved ones any easier, it can free you up to focus on them and to know you did everything according to their wishes.

The key to successful end of life planning is to start talking.

By planning for the end of life before a crisis occurs, you’re better equipped to deal with these issues when significant problems arise. Talking with your loved ones about advance health care directives, funeral planning, financial affairs and location of death can help make the entire process less stressful for everyone.

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