In dealing with clients for some number of years on a multitude of issues, I'm not sure I've found a "bigger elephant in the room" than issues surrounding preparations for our death and dying. And when you boil it down, there are two primary issues: how do I want to die and who will get my money? Addressing both elements is key to establishing a meaningful estate plan.
What do we want the process leading up to our dying to look like? I recently read "Being Mortal" by Dr. Atul Gwande, a terrific and insightful read on the matter. He has found in his work that there really are a series of questions that we need to be comfortable asking one another. And he encourages people to view these questions as "normal to ask, especially when someone is faced with a serious illness, and especially when we know that we're aging and becoming frail."
His list is below:
- What is your understanding of where you are and of your illness?
- Your fears or worries for the future
- Your goals and priorities
- What outcomes are unacceptable to you? What are you willing to sacrifice and not? And later...
- What would a good day look like?
Asking these questions allows everybody to understand what the goal really is — what you really are fighting for - which for many is a life that contains the things that you value. He also recommends having this conversation well before the "end" and, because people change their minds, continuing to revisit the questions along the way.
What does a typical estate plan include from a legal documents perspective? It includes a will, health care directives and powers of attorney (POA). A will states 1) who will act as your executor upon your death and resolve your final matters and 2) who will inherit your estate. But an estate plan also includes documents that appoint people to act for you (POA) while you are alive if you cannot do so for yourself. Because of the power they have over your life, it should be someone you trust implicitly. A health care directive states what sort of treatment you wish to receive or not receive should you not be able to voice that yourself.
If you have a will in Washington State, the probate process is relatively straightforward and cost effective for your executor to settle your estate. However, if you don't have a will, your property is distributed according to the laws of "intestacy", your relatives may or may not know your wishes and in some cases, the relatives disagree on how to resolve your matters. The process can be time consuming and expensive as the court is now called upon to decide on various matters.
Sandy Cairns, Estate Planning Attorney, spoke at my local Financial Planning Association Luncheon this past year. She shared that language can be added to the Financial Power of Attorney (FPOA) agreement which authorizes your FPOA to make gifts on your behalf if you are incapacitated. This can help reduce the size of you estate before you die (estates in Washington state roughly greater than $2,190,000 will likely pay some state estate tax). She also suggested if a family member has been diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer's, creating POAs that have "immediate" powers are helpful. In such instances, it is often hard to gauge when someone is no longer able to act for themselves and waiting until that time adds complexity, delays and cost to something that could have been much simpler.
Diana Zottman, an estate planning attorney spoke to my Bees Knees networking group last night. She encourages you to talk with your family about your financial, legacy and health wishes. Suggestions included:
- Have a personal conversation in which you share your thoughts and desires helps your loved ones see any future potential decisions not so much that they are making the decisions but rather they are carrying out your wishes.
- Write a letter which can be included with your estate plan documents. It allows you to "speak" to your loved one in your voice instead of the hard and unusual legalese of estate planning documents. At a moment of crisis and grief, this can be a very comforting letter for loved ones to receive.
- Create a list directing some of your most treasured possessions to specific loved ones to accompany your documents as well.
Certainly not comfortable topics but necessary ones too. Do yourselves and your family a favor and make it a goal to tackle it in 2018!