That morning at 10:30, the assistant treasurer’s office still stood empty, ready for him to enter and begin his work. But, he’d never sit at his desk again. He had died of a massive heart attack earlier that morning.
Who knows why our president asked me to clean out his office? Perhaps, because I was the risk manager? The first clipped papers at the top of his IN Basket contained the draft of his Last Will and Testament.
Two days later, at his Viewing, I watched his two young sons with dazed expressions on their faces, holding their mother’s hands as they said their good-byes. His wife confirmed he had died intestate, without a valid will. So, his state of Pennsylvania would be making all the decisions he never put into a valid Last Will and Testament document. His family would suffer greatly because of his failure to make a decision to put his finances in order while he was still alive. Upon death, assets of the deceased are frozen. His wife couldn’t cash his last pay check, for example. His family got put in a holding pattern until the completion of a time-consuming state probate.
Why do so many otherwise intelligent and responsible adults fail to protect their hard-earned assets before they die?
Here are some possible explanations:
- Fear – people are afraid to think about illness or death
- Denial – people tell themselves they have lots of time to think about and make preparations for unexpected personal calamities
- Intimidation – the last thing some people want to do is initiate a meeting with a lawyer
- No Time - people procrastinate because they are really busy with a lot going on just to keep up with it all without taking on a huge project like making a Last Will and Testament and considering other financial and medical documents
- Lots of Time – the last thing people, who feel good and healthy, think they need to do is take time now to prepare for getting sick or dying
Nobody wants to think such morbid thoughts. Still, it is a fact that if you are over 21, there is nearly one chance in three that you will be disabled for some period of time before you turn 65. If you are between 35 and 65, your chances of being unable to work for 90 days or more because of a disabling illness or injury are much greater than your chances of dying. I can tell you, it happened to me in my late 40s and various rehabilitation activities spanned years.
Failing to take control of your medical and financial destiny puts you in a terrible position should illness or injury leave you temporarily or permanently unable to speak for yourself. What happens to you becomes a wild card. The stakes are too high to leave your destiny to chance.
Even if you have already purchased Disability Insurance, Business Interruption Insurance, Comprehensive Health Insurance, and a Last Will and Testament, you still need to monitor your coverage against your present situation every few years.
Here’s what can happen to those who fail to pro-act and fall ill. The father was rushed to the hospital with breathing problems. The daughter couldn’t believe her stepmother signed a hospital document to take her father off all life support without even calling her to tell her of her father’s condition. (In most states, spouses are considered the next of kin. In the absence of written directives to the contrary, spouses and/or closest relatives are asked to decide for those who are unable to decide for themselves.)
Fortunately, the daughter did have a Power of Attorney, which she was able to fax to the hospital two states away. However, since it was signed before her father remarried, legally, she had no rights. And a Power of Attorney relates only to financial matters. In this case, she would have needed a current Medical Power of Attorney, which she did not have. Had luck not been with her, her father could have been dead before she reached the hospital.
Because of her quick action, her father was kept on life support until she arrived and she requested her father be taken off all mind-dulling drugs. When he regained consciousness, he was asked if he wanted to remain on the breathing machine and he nodded his head “yes.” The doctor then asked, “Should your heart stop, do you want to be resuscitated?” Again, my father nodded his head “yes.”
When you don’t take the time to prepare in advance documents to guide your medical team, it could cost you a life you were not ready to let go of.
Here are some of the Medical and Financial Documents that can help you prevent financial loss and stay in control when you are unable to make your own medical and financial decisions.
- Living Will Declaration – This document gives written instructions about medical treatment you want and medical treatment you choose not to have. There is also space where you have the option to designate a person you know and trust as a Proxy to made decisions on your behalf if you are unable to do so.
- Health Care Proxies: Durable Powers of Attorney, and Medical Powers of Attorney - With these documents, you choose one specific person to act to make medical decisions on your behalf. Both of these documents tend to be more specific and carry more weight with doctors and medical institutions than Living Wills.
- Organ Donor Documents - There is an organ donor designation space on the back of driver’s licenses in some states. For example, my New York driver’s license has an organ donor section that allows me to choose what organs I choose to give, which I can sign and have two witnesses sign. You can also make organ donor and medical research arrangements with hospitals.
- Last Will and Testament (Will) – This document names someone to be in charge of the orderly discharge of your instructions and compliance with state and federal regulations. This can be a spouse, relative, friend or attorney. In addition, it designates recipients of your real and personal property, makes provisions for funeral arrangements, the disposal of your body after death, and gives instructions as to the discharge of your legal debts. (Although I don’t recommend it, you can do this without an attorney. However, the document must be typed, state it is a Will, name someone to carry out your instructions, provide for the disposition of your property, and be signed by two witnesses who are not named to receive property in your Will.)
- Power of Attorney – There are various types of Powers of Attorney. At minimum, this document appoints an individual to take care of your financial affairs should you be unable to do so while you are still alive. All such powers would expire immediately after your death.
- Business Ownership Succession Documents - For business owners, these Key Person Life Insurance and Key Person Accident Policies, and other documents, make provisions and provide resources for the perpetuation or orderly disposition of a business because the owner or other key person is temporarily or permanently disabled or has died.
- Disability Insurance – This insurance provides cash flow when owners or employees are unable to earn their working salary due to illness or injury that is not work-related or covered under Workers Compensation insurance. Two types exist, one for short-term disabilities and the other for long-term disabilities. Larger companies tend to provide both of these types of insurance as routine, where smaller company employees are often without long-term disability insurance.
- Life Insurance – This coverage provides cash flow for your family members to pay off mortgages, pay debts, and maintain their lifestyle after your death.
Making clear-headed decisions before illness, accident, disease or death can enormously ease the burdens on your loved ones during the trying emotional times of your disabilities or death.
Consider an approach to illness and death that is caring, open, and dignified. Obviously, the ideal situation is where you make medical and estate planning a serious priority and create appropriate documents with the aid of an attorney whose specialty includes disability and estate planning.
That said, it is better to responsibly create your own documents than to have none at all. This is especially true of the Living Will and Last Will and Testament.
RESOURCES: 60 Minute Estate Planner, by Sandy Kraemer
The Quick and Legal Will Book; The Living Trust Maker; and Plan Your Estate, all by Nolo Press
Disclaimer: The sole purpose of this article is to give you a heads-up alert about the importance of pre-planning in the event of serious accident, illness or death. It is not meant to be a substitute for doing your own research and speaking with professionals with the qualifications to guide you in these matters. The descriptions of documents under Medical Documents and Legal Documents are for your general information and it is recommended that you discuss medical documents with your medical advisors, financial documents with your accountants, and document preparation with your legal advisors.