October 30, 2019

One of the Most Important Conversations You’ll Ever Have

It’s never too soon to talk about end-of-life wishes with your family

Let’s face it. It isn’t easy but it’s a conversation we all need to have. It’s that serious conversation about your end-of-life wishes.  It’s uncomfortable enough to talk about money matters and how your assets are to be distributed upon death. But end-of-life conversations go well beyond assets to mortality issues. They’re sad and scary, and uncomfortable, conversations definitely not for the faint of heart.

Families often think they have all the time in the world to do this. But life can turn on a dime. Or the years progress, and no one takes charge of initiating a conversation. Developing a plan now and sharing it within your nuclear family is in everyone’s best interests. When all family members are in good health and anticipating a positive future, the conversation can be held in a safe and calm environment. Once a family is in crisis mode, they are mired in the emotions of sadness and grieving, and it is almost impossible to think straight.

Talking about these issues is a mutual obligation that parents and adult children share. Parents have a responsibility to make their personal wishes clear to avoid missteps in the way care will be administered and, upon death, how assets will be distributed. The point is to avoid the anger, hurt or squabbling that comes when family members do not have a clear understanding of what a parent wants. In turn, grown kids have a responsibility to do the right thing for their parents and provide them with the gift of knowing that their end-of-life wishes will be followed.

Be prepared

The best way to have an important discussion like this is preparedness. Conversations centered around end-of-life wishes must be planned. No one wants to arrive at a family get-together only to discover without warning that the conversation is about mortality. It is often advisable to meet with an estate attorney prior to the conversation to get your wheels turning and understand the issues. Perhaps you might even consider holding the meeting at your estate attorney’s office. Attorneys have knowledge of unique estate issues that may arise and have objectivity in helping make decisions and appointing children to assume various roles. They also have the sensitivity to understand the delicacy of these discussions.

Delicacy and discretion are helpful when initiating the discussion. One way to get things rolling is mentioning a friend who is experiencing a difficult time with helping her adult children understand and execute her wishes in the face of her terminal diagnosis. Or a friend who had the task of serving as executor of his mother’s estate and the tremendous amount of work brought with that task.  You can say these scenarios led you to think about how important it is to have a plan in place.

All family members must be involved in the discussion. The plan that’s developed affects everyone, so sharing the nuts and bolts of it is in everyone’s best interests. Make sure family members who live locally are in the room.  If out-of-town family members cannot attend, a second-best alternative would be to Facetime or Skype them in.

As with all meetings, sending out an agenda-like document helps to further set expectations. This is, after all, a business discussion but one focused on delicate family matters. If there were ever a time to show compassionate leadership, the time is now.

The heavy lifting: Assigning roles

Managing end-of-life issues requires the appointment of several fiduciary and health-related oversight roles, some which take place while you are alive and others after you pass. Each responsibility is aligned with the appropriate document. Assigning the right individual to each of these roles is imperative. Choosing is not a question of playing favorites or being the oldest child. Serious thought must be given to the skill set involved with each responsibility and which of your family members would be best-suited to handle a particular responsibility. There’s also the emotional weight involved with serving in these roles.

The roles and matched documents include the following:

  • Durable Power of Attorney (POA) – This document will allow the named individual to make financial and business decisions in the event a person is incapacitated. This might involve paying bills or liquidating a portion of assets to pay an acute care facility, even selling your home. A person who is capable in managing money is best suited for this role. High ethical standards are also a priority.
  • Healthcare Proxy (Healthcare Power of Attorney) – This document goes beyond the broad-ranging discretion of the Durable Power of Attorney and allows the appointed person to step in to make medical decisions. Almost certainly your lawyer will ask you to sign a health care directive concerning the withholding of nutrition and hydration. There’s a delicate balance involved with determining when quality of life has diminished too far and when and if there’s a point of receiving too much care. It is helpful to share your feelings about this with the family member who will be carrying out your instructions. If you don’t share this information, they may let you linger on; but if they had more insight, they might cease aggressive medical intervention sooner.
  • Last Will and Testament/Executor – This document appoints the person who will manage your estate when you die and works with an estate attorney on a range of issues from distributing assets upon death to paying down debt or your final bills. Serving as an executor constitutes a great deal of responsibility. The family member you choose must be comfortable with the weight of this role.

It’s imperative that all these documents are kept in a safe place, possibly in care of your estate attorney, so they are in easy reach when the time comes to access them. What’s more, with most records being digital today, a list of passwords to all your retirement and other accounts should be stored for easy access as well. It is not uncommon for passwords to be kept in a sealed envelope with your attorney.

Living, Breathing Documents

Creating these documents is not a one-time occurrence. As your life and circumstances change, so should your estate plan.  Reviewing these documents every five years is your best bet for assuring that upon a crisis or your death things will be carried out according to your wishes. As difficult as a planning conversation is, you might even consider it an exercise for generational learning and a time for your kids who are now parents themselves to write a will that among other things will appoint a guardian.

Even with these documents in place, the responsibilities that come with executing them can be sudden. Even with preparedness, the events that require them to be put into motion are sad, emotionally charged and life changing. But life is a precious journey and death is a part of it. Discussions like this can bring about gratitude for life and health in the present and reinforce the preciousness of our journey and the important gifts of love, respect and kindness families share.

At Phelan, Frantz & Ohlig, LLC, we take our responsibility in helping a family navigate these conversations very seriously.  Please contact us if we can be of assistance to you and your family in having one of the most important conversations you will ever have.

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