Friday, March 16, 2012

Series: The Law In Our Lives

Advanced Planning -- The Emotional Toll

In my last post, I discussed the importance of advanced healthcare planning. It can be as simple as preparing an advanced directive or health care power of attorney. In this document, you declare your intentions regarding various health care decisions, such as whether you would want artificial nutrition and hydration to prolong your life in the hospital. (Financial planning is important too! It can be as simple as adding a beneficiary's name to your house, bank accounts, and retirement plans to avoid probate, writing a living trust, and having a simple will.)

Meeting with a lawyer and getting a signature of an elderly parent in a hospital, nursing home, or even in their own home can be stressful; I advise that you be prepared. After all, we'll all be there some day and it gives peace of mind to know that you have taken the decision-making burden off your family. That sounds logical, right?

My parents did all those things. They made their own decisions. They took the burden off us kids. But I was still not prepared for the emotions attached to producing their documents for actual use by medical staff. Sure, I had prepared their health care directives myself and felt sure that the documents reflected my parents' wishes. But the act of handing that paper over to a health care provider made the situation real. At the time we wrote them, it was easy to say that my parents didn't want "heroic measures" taken to keep them alive, but it was another matter to realize that those same "heroic measures" they didn't want would be the same ones that would keep them here with us a little longer.

Now, as I watch my father being placed on hospice, I am struggling with these decisions. The hospice worker reviewed the documents I prepared and reminded us that if a time comes when my dad needs heroic measures (including something as simple as CPR), we cannot call 911. We must follow his wishes and allow him to die peacefully.

I know I am not as level-headed and detached now as I was when I assisted my parents with their estate planning; I am grateful that we took care of this ahead of time.

As you begin your estate planning, it is important that you be able to think clearly and rationally, which is much more difficult when surgery, hospitalization, nursing home care, or death is imminent. It is also less frightening.

Frequently our clients admit that they have put off their estate planning because it scared them to face the idea of their own deaths, but most express a feeling of relief when they sign their papers - wills, deeds, trusts, and powers of attorney. They know that their wishes will be honored and their loved ones won't have to worry. It's all about peace of mind.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Series: The Law In Our Lives

Advanced Planning -- Be Prepared!

For twenty years I have offered legal advice to clients regarding the importance of writing a simple will, a health care directive, and a durable power of attorney before a crisis arises. It wasn't until my own parents began experiencing health problems that I realized the true wisdom of my own words.

Both of my parents were hospitalized several times during the last few years. Each time, they were asked whether they had an "advanced directive." Luckily, I had assisted them with this many years ago. After discussing their wishes regarding distribution of their property, nursing home care, and life-prolonging measures such as artificial nutrition and hydration, I designed a straightforward estate plan including the following:
  1. Living Wills (Powers of Attorney for Health Care)
  2. Simple Wills
  3. Durable Powers of Attorney
  4. Beneficiary Deed

Like many of my clients, my parents were crystal clear about their feelings regarding these issues and were wise enough to express those feelings in a legal document. These pieces of paper may seem insignificant, but they constitute the "clear and convincing evidence" of my parents' intent that the courts require in order for their wishes to be carried out.

Each time they were asked to do so, my parents obediently (and rather proudly) produced their original health care directives for copying. We always put them back in their refrigerator drawer for safekeeping afterwards. (In case of a fire, the papers will probably survive. Safe deposit boxes and fire-proof safes work great if you have one, but if not a fridge is a good alternative. I recommended a safe deposit box to my parents, but it's actually easier to get at the papers if you just reach behind the lettuce!)

Nearly everyone I have talked to feels strongly about whether they would want treatment which might prolong the dying process. Many are adamant that they do not want to be kept alive on a ventilator or with artificially-supplied food and water. However, most clients also admit that they have not taken the crucial next step -- putting their wishes in writing. I cannot count the number of times a client has dashed into our office requesting that we prepare a legal document immediately, because they (or a parent, grandparent, aunt, etc.) is having surgery, going into a nursing home, or dying. The added stress this causes is evident on their faces.

My advice is that you do not put yourself or your family members in that position. Instead, take the time to sit down and think about what you want without the pressure. Then speak to an attorney who will advise you of the best way to accomplish your goal. We, like many attorneys, would be happy to discuss the procedure and costs.