Talking about our own death feels strange and somehow wrong, yet death happens to all of us. It is one of the few certainties in life. Because death is such a momentous occasion in our lives, we ought to plan for it and talk about – especially when it comes to our wishes about how we want to die and what happens to our assets after we die.
The daughter of a wealthy Toronto real estate mogul, philanthropist and Holocaust survivor, lost her legal bid to keep Leafs season tickets she inherited from him after his death almost three years ago. Edie Neuberger, a Toronto lawyer and heir to her father Chaim’s fortune along with her sister, lost her claim to the tickets after a judge ruled her dad held them in trust for his former company.
It’s not unusual for heirs to argue over the likes of tickets or reward points, such as air miles, said lawyers in Toronto who were watching the case with interest. Laura Cardiff of the local firm Whaley Lawyers, which wasn’t involved in the Neuberger case, said:
“It’s because people don’t think of these as assets when doing their estate planning, although they can be very valuable. We’re all very bad at thinking about our own death.”
Why We Should Plan For Death
Many of us haven’t planned how we want our lives to end. Death has been a far-off and abstract idea. Ken Hillman, professor of intensive care at the University of NSW, says, “Ask yourself, what sort of state would be unacceptable? You might not want to be in a state of constant pain. You may not want to live if you have no control over your bowel movements, you’re demented, bed-bound or you don’t recognise your family.”
You may also decide that when the time comes, medical intervention be withdrawn. For example, A ‘DNR order’ (Do Not Resuscitate) is a medical order to withhold cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) techniques. You may also wish to die at home rather than in a hospital, or you may choose not to accept life-prolonging treatment once your quality of life is permanently impaired.
Putting these kinds of decisions off is unwise when tomorrow everything can change. Organising your advance care directive and letting your family know your decisions will mean that you get to choose the conditions under which you are kept alive if you have a serious injury or illness. Your family members can’t choose to stop treatment if you don’t have the legal documents prepared and signed. “Hardly a day goes by when I don’t look at someone on a life-support machine and think, ‘Don’t ever let this happen to me.’” says Hillman.
While Hillman is confronted with death and the decision-making that goes with that everyday, there are other doctors who are not quite as aware. Some of Australia’s most senior doctors say that Australia is developing a death-denying culture that needs to change. Only 17% of physicians believed that doctors were always aware of their patients end-of-life desires according to a recent survey by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. “We still all have to die and there’s still a period where we can no longer really extend life,” the college’s outgoing president, Professor Nick Talley, said. “There is a bit of death-defying culture, one almost might believe, some people believe they won’t die.” Doctors are integral in helping to start these conversations.
Catherine Yelland, the incoming president, stresses that there are many benefits to planning end-of-life care. “It means that we can then try to fulfil the patient’s wishes as much as is possible, that we actually understand what it is they want, how they want to die, where they want to die,” she said. “It also means that their family is aware that this is going to happen and can prepare for that, and can also respect the person’s wishes in terms of their treatment and how best the family can help with that.”
How To Plan For Death
Estate planning is the process which deals with making decisions about your death. Good estate planning should include the following:
- Stating whom you want to receive something of yours, what you want them to receive, and when they are to receive it.
- Instructions for your care if you become disabled before you die.
- Name a guardian for minor children.
- Provide for family members with special needs without disrupting government benefits.
- Provide for loved ones who might be irresponsible with money or who may need future protection from creditors or divorce.
- Include life insurance to provide for your family at your death, disability income insurance to replace your income if you cannot work due to illness or injury, and long-term care insurance to help pay for your care in case of an extended illness or injury.
- Provide for the transfer of your business at your retirement, disability, or death.
- Minimize taxes, court costs, and unnecessary legal fees.
- Be an ongoing process, not a one-time event. Your plan should be reviewed and updated as your family and financial situations (and laws) change over your lifetime.
It’s normal to have emotions about planning for your death, but it’s important that you plan for your death, for the sake of the living.
If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know the pain that comes along with it. The loss alone is heartbreaking. Add in the decisions leading up to the death. Electing a person to make life-altering decisions. Selecting a funeral or burial or cremation location. Deciding on a memorial or a viewing to remember them by. Paperwork, lawyers, bills. It’s emotional and stressful. By creating an estate plan ahead of time, you ease the chaos when you do die.
The road to solid estate planning is paved with communication. Get your trusted loved ones and advisors involved. The fewer surprises to your survivors after your death, the less chance there will be confusion or disputes. A specialist lawyer can help you create an estate plan that minimises tax liabilities, preserves assets and alert you to many of the common mistakes made in estate planning.
Your plan is just that—a plan. It can change.
You will learn much by living with your plan for a while. Plans are made to be changed. Review all of your estate planning documents and beneficiary designations every 3-5 years and after any major life event (e.g. marriage/divorce, death, birth, significant change in financial situation, move or change in property ownership).
Most importantly, do your estate planning while you still can. If you lose capacity due to illness or injury, then it’s too late. Family members seeking to make decisions on your behalf may have to go to court to do so.
Let’s start talking about death and how you can prepare for it.
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