Do not Neglect the Softer Side of Your Estate Plan
Document and share your wishes for end-of-life care, the care of your pets, the disposition of your tangible assets, and more.
While traditional estate-planning documents attend to a lot of crucial issues such as the distribution of assets and attitudes toward life-sustaining care, there are a number of “softer” decisions often left out—important topics like attitudes toward receiving care in their home or in a facility, or whether an individual prefers to die at home or if a hospital was OK. Do physical assets need to be split up equally among the children, or is it OK to let a number of items go to family members with a greater need for them?
Implicit in making someone an executor, trustee, or guardian, or delegating powers of attorney, is a statement that that you trust that person’s judgment to do what is best in various situations, including some of those outlined above. But it is worthwhile to think through some of the softer, nonfinancial issues that could arise in your later years. Some of these issues, such as providing for the care of pets or getting specific about the disposition of your physical property, can be addressed with legally binding estate-planning documents. Other issues, such as how you would like your loved ones to balance your care with their own quality of life, are best discussed with your loved ones and/or documented in writing on your own. (If you decide to leave physical or electronic documents that spell out your wishes on some of these matters, be sure to let your loved ones know how gain access to them.)
Attitudes Toward Guardianship
If you have minor children and have designated guardians to care for them if something should happen to you, you of course need to inform the guardians and make sure they are OK with the responsibility. In addition, take the next step and communicate to your designated guardians about your priorities and values as a parent—your attitudes toward their education, spirituality, and financial matters, for example. And even if your children are grown—or getting there—it is worthwhile to talk to close friends or family members about how you hope they will interact with your kids if you are no longer around.
Attitudes Toward Life During Dementia
Given the increased incidence of dementia in the developed world, an outgrowth of longer life expectancies, it is worth thinking through and communicating to your loved ones your attitudes toward your care and quality of life if you develop dementia. Would you prioritize in-home care above all else, or would care delivered in a facility be agreeable if it improved your spouse’s quality of life? Would you want your spouse or other loved ones to try to care for you themselves for as long as possible, or would you rather they delegated those responsibilities to paid caregivers, assuming the family finances could support it? How would you like your loved ones to balance your quality of life with their own? How would you like them to balance your health and safety with your own quality of life? How important would it be to you to receive daily visits from your spouse and other loved ones, even it meant that those obligations would detract from their ability to travel or pursue other activities? Would you prefer to keep your decline as private as possible, or would you rather be out in public interacting with people no matter what? There is no “right” answer to any of these questions, but talking through them can help your loved ones be at peace with the decisions they could eventually make.
Attitudes Toward End-of-Life Care
The Conversation Project, designed to help people discuss their own thoughts on end-of-life care, has been featured on NPR. In the segment, two adult daughters used “The Conversation” template to interview their elderly dad about the decisions they might eventually make on his behalf. Their father had drafted an advance directive that specified, rather strictly, that he did not want any life-sustaining care if he had no chance for a good quality of life. But one of the daughters asked whether it would be OK if they took a bit more time with the decision to let him go if it provided them with a sense of peace. Without skipping a beat, the dad said, “Oh, of course. Absolutely.” That conversation drove home the importance of adding nuance to the end-of-life discussion, above and beyond what could be provided by living wills or advance directives. You can read more about The Conversation Project and download a conversation starter kit here, but do not feel bound by it. If there are important end-of-life issues that it does not address, feel free to expand the discussion with your loved ones and/or commit them to writing.
Attitudes Toward Funerals, Burials, Etc.
Many people make plans for any funerals/memorials and the disposition of their bodies well in advance; the right approach to these issues may be predetermined by culture or religion. But for other people, attitudes toward these matters are not obvious at all, so it is useful to spell out your wishes in advance, either verbally, in writing, or both. Maybe your wishes are simply to have your loved ones say goodbye in whatever way gives them the most peace at that time; in that case, tell them that or write that down.
Attitudes Toward Care of Pets
It is a cliché to say that pets are like family members, but for many people, that is absolutely the case. The good news is that you can actually lay the groundwork for continuing care for your pet as part of your estate plan. The gold standard, albeit one that entails costs to set up, is a pet trust; through such a trust, you detail which pets are covered, who you would like to care for them and how, and leave an amount of money to cover the pet’s ongoing care. Alternatively, you can use a will to specify a caretaker for your pet and leave additional assets to that person to care for the pet; the downside of this arrangement is that the person who inherits those assets is not legally bound to use the money for the pet’s care. At a minimum, develop at least a verbally communicated plan for caretaking for your pet if you are unable to do so—either on a short- or long-term basis.
Attitudes about Disposition of Personal Possessions
Are there specific physical assets you would like to earmark for children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or friends? If so, your estate-planning attorney can help you codify the disposition of those assets in your will so there is no confusion. Also let your loved ones know if there are physical assets that you would like to stay within the family (again, your will is the best way to do this). Importantly, you should also let them know what you do not feel strongly about them selling or otherwise disposing of when you are gone. Do you want your executor to take pains to divide the assets equally among your heirs so that everyone receives tangible property of similar value? The topic of dividing up tangible property among family members is a complicated one, to put it mildly; the more you say about your wishes in advance, the better off everyone will be in the end.
© Morningstar 2017. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.
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