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Plan Well, Retire Well

Saving and investing your money

Yes, Advance Directives Do Help

This is a continuation of a blog thread that Karen Chan began a couple of weeks ago. Karen and I both recently lost a loved one and thought our experiences dealing with this loss (especially the financial aspects) might be an interesting blog series. Neither of us is an attorney or an authority on estate planning, and these posts will NOT give any kind of legal or estate planning advice. We want this to be a conversation, and we invite you to comment and share your own experiences.

Looking back, my mother-in-law had been in declining health for all of 2012. However, her death still took us by surprise. The year went by very quickly with one medical event after another, and even simple things like scheduling a visit to a lawyer to update her will and advance directives kept getting postponed. Luckily, she did update her legal documents because we ended up needing to use them all much sooner than expected.

Advance directives are legal documents that enable people to say how they want their financial and health needs met if they can't express their wants themselves. It was a very hard year watching my mother-in-law lose her ability to manage her finances; she had always been very much on top of managing her finances, and private about them too. I don't think I'll ever forget the day that she realized she couldn't recall how to write a check. It was a transition for all of us to shift from independence to working cooperatively on paying financial bills and selling investments so that she could move into an assisted living facility. However, the Power of Attorney for Property that she wrote with her lawyer's help allowed us to make this transition.

We were just getting used to the balancing act of providing help without being too pushy when another medical event occurred. This time we needed the Power of Attorney of Health Care, another advance directive option. We had to make some very hard decisions about how much medical care versus supportive care to provide. All that were involved in that decision were very thankful that this had been discussed while my mother-in-law was in excellent health and in declining health, and that her wishes were also clearly stated in the Power of Attorney for Health Care. I don't know how we would have possibly dealt with the decisions if she hadn't cared enough to do this ahead of time.

I've thought about this a lot lately and I don't think there's ever a good time to talk about how you want your finances and health care managed if for some reasons you can't communicate what you want at the time. This isn't something that only concerns older people. Anyone can be in an accident or be in too much pain (or on pain medications) to think clearly. And, even when we are "older" we usually don't consider ourselves old!

So when do we have this conversation? I've been wondering if it should become a Thanksgiving tradition? It is a time that family members tend to be together. What do you think? What's a good way to start this conversation?

For more detailed information about advance directives, read another blog post, Advance Directives Help Families during Difficult Times.

Next time I'll talk about the other important legal document, your will. And, I'll share some of the things we learned the hard way!

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Our family conversations about advanced directives took place early enough to allow everyone (parents and children) to think clearly about and express their wishes. The main goal that helped frame these decisions was defining the difference between "living" and merely "existing". Modern medicine has made many advances over the years, which is good. But, it also causes more families to struggle with scenarios where loved ones are no longer enjoying a quality of life. From personal experience, I can attest that having these advanced directive documents prepared and accessible prior to reaching this time is a valuable and comforting piece for the family, especially the POA and/or trustee.
by Karen Moore on Thursday 4/18/2013