Pre-planning can help your family during challenging times

A few weeks after my sister’s death, I searched her home looking for a white binder containing our mom’s legal documents. The closing on our childhood home was less than a week away. Our elderly mom had dementia and was living in assisted living, so we were selling her house. My sister had our mom’s power of attorney but upon her death, the role fell to me. I needed the original legal documents to sign the closing papers. 

My brother-in-law had no idea where my sister kept important papers. A math whiz, she handled the family finances. Even in my grief, I resented her for not giving me at least basic instructions regarding her wishes and our mom’s care. Of course, I felt guilty for feeling that way. I had tried broaching the subject two and a half years earlier when she got her terminal breast cancer diagnosis.

“You’re going to beat the odds; I know it. But just in case you aren’t feeling well temporarily, please just tell me where things are,” I said. 

“That’s unnecessary,” she said. “You’re being negative.” 

Her family had to plan her funeral during the pandemic with no idea of her wishes other than having a closed casket. If our family had talked openly and regularly about dying, we could have avoided months of stress, second-guessing, and headaches. 

“We don’t know what the future will hold and whether we will get sick. It’s much better to have people in place who you trust who can step into these roles,” says Theresa Marangas, an estate planning lawyer with Meier Law Firm in Latham. “COVID was a great catalyst for learning about how to do things smarter, how to be more practical and not in denial.”

It’s not just about planning your funeral and who gets a family heirloom. The pandemic has taught us that even young, healthy people can get sick and die. 

“Without a will, if somebody passes away, New York state law dictates who receives your estate,” Marangas says. 

At the point someone is old enough to make their own decisions, they should start writing down their wishes in what’s called “advanced care planning,” says licensed clinical social worker Deborah House, who oversees the social work system for St. Peter’s Health Partners.

“Things can happen to anyone at any point in time, regardless of age,” House says. It’s easier emotionally to plan when everyone is healthy and there’s no serious diagnosis, she says. “We need to make it part of every family’s conversation at the dinner table. It doesn’t have to have stigma. It doesn’t have to have emotion.” 

She recommends two nonprofit websites to get started: The Conversation Project and the Serious Illness Conversation Guide. Advanced care planning is something adults do to save their loved ones from having to guess their wishes. After someone puts their wishes in place, they should update it periodically as conditions change, such as the birth of a grandchild, House says.

These are difficult topics for everyone, House says. The family matriarch doesn’t want to lose her place. Others who are sick may not want to burden their loved ones. This is why pre-planning is so helpful.

“When you preplan, your emotional response decreases and the stigma attached to those conversations decreases,” House says. If someone is facing a terminal illness and you haven’t had this conversation, she suggests broaching the subject slowly over time. Let your loved one know you want their wishes to be known and you’re asking out of respect. 

What do you need?

You don’t have to be wealthy or old to complete a living will, a will, a power of attorney and a health care proxy form, Marangas says. A client whose mother had fallen and sustained a head injury contacted Marangas because her mother had no living will or health care proxy. The adult daughter had to decide on her own when to remove life support. And because the woman died without a will, Meier spent more time figuring out the mother’s finances than if she had had an estate plan in place.

“If you care about your loved ones and your assets, legacy planning is a much better gift to give them,” Marangas says.

A health care proxy is a simple document that names someone, along with a successor, who can make health decisions for you if you are unable to do so. The health care proxy status allows clinical staff to talk to the patient’s designated representative. If someone is married, their spouse doesn’t automatically become their health care proxy under New York state law, Marangas says. When you name someone as your health care proxy, let them know so they’re ready to step in if needed, House adds. The power of attorney allows your designee to manage your finances and make legal decisions on your behalf. 

Health insurance covers advanced care planning, so people writing a living will can discuss their options with their family physicians—and understand what’s meant by terms such as “extraordinary means” and “life support,” House says. 

Advanced care planning should be a continuous conversation over the course of one’s lifetime, where people share their wishes for whether they want to be kept alive by a machine and for how long, as well as their funeral wishes and distribution of their belongings and assets. Leave sensitive information such as bank account numbers, passwords to online accounts and social media, phone and computer login information, important documents, the safe deposit box key or combination to a safe with your attorney or partner, and leave behind instructions on how to reach your lawyer. 

“With a little bit of education and guidance from the right professional, you can have things in place for your loved one,” Marangas says. “It doesn’t take a lot to put bricks in place for a solid foundation. It’s a little bit of time and a little bit of money. You go on with your life, because we don’t know what the world is going to bring.”