Avoiding Future Shock: The Importance of Making Final Arrangements
We MSers deal with our condition from day to day, hour to hour, moment to moment. It demands our attention, sometimes relentlessly, like a whistling tea kettle that must be taken off the heat to be silenced. These demands make it difficult for us to concentrate on the tasks at hand, let alone make plans for the future.
But there are some plans that we should take the time to make, difficult as it might be: plans for our final arrangements. I learned this lesson from my parents, neither of whom had made a will or an advance directive before they went through their final illnesses. There are two kinds of arrangements I shall discuss: a living will, and a last will and testament.
A living will is also known as an advance health care directive. In it you can specify whether you want to refuse interventions that will prolong your life, should you become irreversibly comatose, such as a respirator, feeding tube and IV hydration. This is different from a Do Not Resuscitate order (DNR) where you can choose not to be revived if you are terminally ill. And, since no situation goes simply and smoothly and crap can still happen—such as your medical team deciding to ignore your advance directive and putting you on permanent life support anyway—it’s good to also appoint a Health Care Durable Power of Attorney, a person who will be your health care proxy and make medical decisions if you are incapacitated. This person should be someone you trust who is stable and able to quickly drive or jump on a plane to be at your side and go to bat for you.
Making out a living will does not require an attorney and can be had for free if you do a little internet research and download the forms. Compared to last wills and trusts, this one is a relatively simple affair.
Making out a last will and testament can be a simple affair, too. Did you know that depending on your assets and whose names are on them, big ticket items such as homes don’t need to go in a will? If you are married or have joint ownership, the joint holder automatically inherits. So a will is a good place to detail the smaller stuff such as jewelry or sentimental items like heirloom pieces and keepsakes, grandma’s hand-crocheted throw and Aunt Matilda’s fiesta ware. Here is where you say who gets what. What’s more, it is well worth your time to schedule a consultation with an attorney to discuss what needs to go in your will and whether your wishes might be better served by setting up a trust in addition to or instead of a will. If the estate does go into probate, all creditors have dibs on the liquid assets in the estate, but anything that is held in a trust can’t be touched. So it is also a good idea to pick the attorney’s brain about probate and when it is necessary to open an estate in probate. As co-executors of our mother’s will, my sister and I learned loads from a one-hour free consult with an attorney about whether we had to open our mother’s estate in probate. We did not have to, much to my surprise.
The one big thing we learned was this: the only reason you need to open probate is to transfer a title. Period. If you sell a house, that would involve a title transfer. Food for thought.
Has all this information got your head spinning? Do you want to hide under a table? Yeah. There’s a learning curve to the living will and the last will and testament, and it sounds like a royal pain. But you don’t have to muddle through it all by yourselves. You’ll get clearer on this stuff after just one hour talking to an attorney.
And here’s what I’m about to do to make it all even simpler: I went to LegalZoom, where I drew up my mother’s will, and started the process for a package deal for myself. The package consists of my living will, last will and testament, and Durable Power of Attorney. It will cost $161 and that includes access to attorneys should I need to ask questions. I will also have continuous access to these documents and can update them as needed. In fact, you can count on the likelihood that your wishes will change over time. You’ll change your Power of Attorney, change your mind about whether you want a burial or cremation or donate your body to MS research. You’ll get divorced, widowed, or get married. Buy or sell a house. Cash out a pension or 401(k). Start having children or add to your existing brood. File bankruptcy and lose everything, or win the lottery and become one of the one percent. Life is change.
There are other sources on the internet to draw up these documents, too, and the costs do vary. But whether you do it yourself on the internet or defer to an attorney to draw up the paperwork for you, it is so important to take care of these matters sooner rather than later.
If you put it off, you’ll do what my parents did: not do it at all. This will put the burden on your loved ones to make a mad scramble to pull it all together, like my siblings and I had to do when my mother became ill. Not only is it incredibly stressful, it can set family members against each other, and, ultimately, it can cause you undue stress and suffering during your final illness.
I am going to wrap up the details of my living will/POA/last will and testament package within the next two weeks, that’s my target. My mother has been dead barely a month, and I’ve already decided that, in the event of an accident or catastrophic illness, and when I enter into my final illness, I shall not put my siblings through the same trials we all went through with our mother. I don’t have much control over what happens in life, but that much I can do. And it feels good to take charge of something like that. Having MS can make me feel so helpless a good deal of the time. Here’s something I can help.
What about you? Have you got your house in order? Ducks in a row? Still tight with the peeps who pinkie-swore they’d carry out your last wishes? Do tell.