June 2017

Last Wishes: Live Love, Hum...... Essential documents every adult needs now

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

When my late husband Zack Smith was alive, he used to “practice” for his funeral. “I’ll hum when I’m ready,” he said, lying on his back and getting in position. With one hand over his heart, eyes closed and a sly, closed-lip smile, he assumed his preferred death pose. This became a running cocktail party joke and a ritual he performed frequently, always coming back to life and laughing uproariously, but then secretly letting me know he was serious. Once he even had me snap a picture. This was in the days before smart phones and cloud computing, so who knows where that photo landed? Probably in a shoe box in the attic.

On September 27, 2001, after a long illness, practice was over, the joke was no longer funny, and the funeral directors got it all wrong. In the fog of shock and sadness, I forgot to give explicit instructions and had to send my husband’s body back to the mortician to be presented as he wished. Thankfully, his other requests were all in writing, including what treatments he wanted and didn’t want (plenty of pain meds; no feeding tube), and how he wanted his personal property and financial assets divided.

While most people don’t practice their coffin pose, every adult over the age of 18 should plan and prepare for his or her future healthcare and end-of-life needs, including the distribution of personal items and financial assets.

Never too young
Most of us, no matter what age, are far too busy living to devote more than a fleeting thought to the end of it. Unless you are faced with a serious illness or have been enlightened through a loved one’s experience, you may not have considered your own exit plan. It’s easy to believe we have time, but there is an old saying that goes around in estate planning circles: “People don’t always die when they are supposed to.”

If you’ve just received your high school diploma and are headed into the Wild West of college and/or career, it’s time to “adult.” According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics, accidents (unintentional injuries) are the leading cause of death for young adults, and a quarter-million Americans between ages 18 and 25 are hospitalized with nonlethal injuries each year. The scary part is this: Even if you remain financially dependent on your parents, they may not be allowed to make health decisions on your behalf without jumping through legal hoops. To be on the safe side, you should consider appointing a legal health care representative—a parent, other trusted family member, or friend—to call the shots if you are unable to do so. Take it a step further by completing an advance directive so there is no question concerning your wishes should you be permanently incapacitated.

While state laws vary, all 50 states permit you to express your wishes concerning medical treatment in injury or terminal illness situations and to select someone to communicate for you if you cannot communicate for yourself. Depending on the state, these documents are known as living wills, medical directives, health care proxies, or advance health care directives.

In South Carolina, you must fill out two separate forms to have a complete advance directive: a living will and a health care power of attorney (a.k.a. health care proxy). The purpose of these combined documents is to allow you to express your preferences concerning medical treatment in an extreme medical situation, including at the end of your life.

A living will specifies how you would like to be cared for should you be in a persistent vegetative state. If you would like to die naturally by removal of life support such as a feeding tube or ventilator, all parties are legally required to honor your wishes.
Meanwhile, the power of attorney grants decision-making authority to the individual named in the document. This person must abide by your living will, but he or she can make other important decisions not specifically covered in the living will. Stating your wishes legally, in writing, clarifies your desires for your physicians as well as family members so no one has to guess what you would have wanted.

If you are a parent, there is an even more compelling reason to get a plan in place: You can choose the guardians of your children should you become incapacitated or die. Again, laws vary from state to state. Better to make this decision while life is rosy and you can make a clear choice.

Other vital end-of-life documents include: a last will and testament; trust documents; life insurance policies; end-of-life instructions letter (regarding wishes not covered in will); and your organ donor card. It is recommended that you review your will and medical directives every three to five years or every time you experience a life changing event such as a marriage or divorce, birth or death in the family, change of financial status or employment, change of residence, etc.

About the money…
Financial documents are important when you die, of course, but documents such as tax returns and bank account information are also critical in many instances throughout life. If you or a family member cannot immediately put a finger on important documents, everything from student loan applications and mortgages to Medicaid or veteran benefits may be delayed.

Upon your death, family members will need access to your financial accounts so that your final wishes can be carried out. So, even if you only have $5 in the bank and a shirt on your back, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of documenting what you own and where it is. As you accumulate more, you will need to keep records of the following: list of all bank accounts; pension documents 401(k) information, and annuity contracts; tax returns; savings bonds, stock certificates or brokerage accounts; partnership and corporate operating agreements; deeds to all property; vehicle titles/papers; documentation of loans and debts, including all credit accounts; and any durable financial power of attorney (financial proxy).

Remember, if you die without a valid will, the state where you reside will determine who inherits your property. This includes bank accounts, securities, real estate and other assets. Real estate owned in a different state from your residence will be handled under intestacy laws of the state where the property is located. Do you really want the government deciding for you?

Getting it all together
In today’s electronic world, it’s easier than ever to keep up with your essential documents and records. (For convenient online organization, storage and sharing tools, visit everplans.com.) It’s also important to know exactly where your legal and financial documents are, whether they are being stored online, in a safe deposit box at the bank, or a filing cabinet or in-home safe. Beyond your healthcare and financial records, other important documents that need a secure location include your birth certificate, immigration papers, passport, marriage license, pre/post nuptial agreement, divorce records, mortgage papers, automobile titles, property insurance policies, employee benefit documents, military records, medical records, warranties, current bills, and last, but not least, your funeral/burial instructions. Should you decide to strike a special pose for your final viewing, practice up! Grab a selfie stick and, when you’re ready, hum. Be sure to store the photo or video in the cloud and share the password with a trusted family member or your friendly neighborhood mortician.

Note: Please consult your attorney for assistance with all legal documents, and don’t fall prey to online legal sites that may not be legitimate or accurate. Just because a web provider hangs a shingle that says it offers legal services doesn’t mean it’s equivalent to what you would get from a lawyer. There is no substitute for a trusted attorney who can help you navigate your health care and estate planning needs. 

  1. Great informative article that everyone should read. I am sending it to my son. My younger son died 11 years ago without a will or any instructions. It was a disaster trying to sort everything out.

    — Elisabeth Nantz    Jun 5, 01:38 pm   

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