At first thought, it might seem odd, even morbid, to prepare for your death. But, let's face it, however young you are now, however healthy you think you are now, the only certainty in life is death – and so a little preparation is simply sensible. A few basic arrangements could make all the difference to your family and friends in the event of your death and, in the meanwhile, might even change your attitude to life.
Prepare a will. This needs to be done through a qualified attorney (or, if you feel qualified to do it yourself, at least reviewed by one) and checked occasionally as time passes. Where do you want your home and savings to go? Think not just of relatives but of charities that you would like to support. Are there any personal possessions that you would like to leave to particular individuals? Make sure that copies of the will are with the executors and somewhere at home known to your partner or close friend.
Prepare a living will. If you were to become seriously ill, are their treatments that you wouldn't want? If you were brain dead, would you want treatment to continue or not? These are difficult decisions to leave to your family and it is helpful if you set out your wishes to guide them in the event that this ever proves necessary.
Plan your funeral. What type of ceremony would you like? What (and Who) would you want as its focus? Do you want particular pieces of music or particular hymns or scripture readings? Would you like certain people to officiate or speak? Do you want to be buried or cremated? It will be really helpful to your family if you make a written note of these wishes.
Organize your finances. Keep your financial records up-to-date and accessible. Ensure that all savings can be easily located and accessed. Make sure the person you have designated to have power of attorney and your executor knows where to access those records and your login information for all your accounts.
Have all key documents readily accessible. You need to be sure that your spouse or relative can easily locate things like your birth certificate, bank details, life insurance policies, house deeds, will, living will, and funeral plans.
From time to time, think about how you would like to be remembered when you've gone. Maybe you'd like to think that you would be recalled as a devoted spouse, a loving parent, a supportive friend, a loyal colleague. If this is how you'd care to be remembered, ensure that this is how you're actually living your life. You only get one chance.
Live each day as if it could be your last. This advice is not to be taken literally of course, but to be used as guide to living in three respects:
- In a day-to-day sense, do not leave arguments or disagreements unresolved . If you were to die with antagonism between you and another, think how he/she would feel; if, on the other hand, that person were to die, think how you would feel.
- In a day-to-day sense, you should not leave expressions of love or admiration unsaid. You may assume that your spouse or child or friend knows that you love them, but you cannot say it often enough. One day, you will say it for the last time and those you leave behind will feel all the better for your recent affirmation.
- In a more medium-term sense, don't postpone things you've really wanted to do—whether it is looking up an old friend or taking a particular course or doing a particular type of giving of yourself and/or your means. If you keep procrastinating, you may not live to do these things and, even if you're still alive, you may find that you no longer have the physical or financial resources to do them. You never know what is around the corner in your life—and it might even be your death.
- A person (well or dying) can make advance arrangements for his or her funeral or memorial service. Let loved ones know whether you prefer burial or cremation and whether or not parts of your body are to be donated to others or used for medical research. It is helpful to have a burial plot or interment place secured.
- Consider leaving detailed written instructions with one or two people, such as a spouse and the executor of your estate (this latter aspect requires a will). Some items you might include are the location of important papers, a list of assets and debts, contact information for legal and financial advisors, a description of funeral or memorial arrangements that have already been made and/or paid for, and the content of the memorial service. This so-called “letter of last instructions” can help eliminate a lot of the confusion and uncertainty that often occurs at death. It is not a substitute for, nor does it serve as, a will. It is a separate and distinct set of information. A will is a legal document that describes the disposition of an estate following death.
- Take care of details to make sure a dying person’s spouse and/or other survivors are well taken care of. Check the beneficiary designations on life insurance, a will, and retirement savings plans and the amount of Social Security and/or pension benefits survivors will receive.
- Financial experts advise families to prepare a financial notebook or accordion file to store all legal and financial documents in one place. If a dying spouse previously handled all the family finances, the soon-to-be widow or widower needs to be brought up to speed. The same goes for adult children who will need to manage a dying parent’s finances.
- Consider using the services of a hospice to assist people with terminal illnesses and their families. Hospice care is generally provided by a team of professionals and trained volunteers. Services provided include nursing and home health aide services, emotional support for the patient and family, pain management, chaplain services for spiritual support, and grief counseling.
- The goal of hospice care is to improve the quality of life of people in the last stages of an incurable illness when a cure is no longer possible. Hospices also help family members care for their loved one and manage the stresses associated with the loss of a loved one. Many people report that hospice care helps them feel more at peace as the end of life approaches.
- Many hospice services are covered by Medicare. If a patient is under 65 and does not have Medicare, hospices often work along with their health insurance to facilitate reimbursement and to order equipment (such as a wheelchair or hospital bed), if needed. If insurance is not available or does not cover hospice services, many hospices have a sliding scale fee based on a family’s ability to pay.
Compare funeral services and options, especially if there is adequate “notice,” such as a long illness, or an impending death. Funerals are often a family’s third or fourth largest purchase after a house, college, and a car. Consider the following:
As crass or unseemly as it might sound, the “Rule of Three”—comparing at least three different service providers—should be applied to funeral homes, as well as any other product or service. For additional background information, visit www.funerals.org.
- The average cost of a funeral in 2004 was $5,200, but costs can range from $2,000 to $10,000 or more, depending on the services selected and where you live. The cost of a casket is often the single largest item.
- Experts advise bringing along someone who isn’t grieving when visiting service providers because they are less likely to make decisions based on emotions. For example, some people may have feelings of guilt or a fear of appearing “stingy” and try to compensate with an elaborate funeral.
- By federal law, funeral directors must provide an itemized list of prices, in person or over the phone, upon request. Consumers have the right to select the products and services they want without being required to buy a bundled package of pre-selected items.
- Some with experience in this area recommend steering clear of prepaid funerals because they can be expensive and difficult to get money back out of (if people change their mind or move, for example). Instead, they suggest buying a small life insurance policy to cover funeral expenses or earmarking a sum of money in a financial account. An exception is when someone is in the process of spending down their assets to qualify for payment of long-term care expenses by Medicaid. In this situation, dollars spent on a prepaid funeral are not counted as a household asset.
- Another funeral-related issue is deciding where someone gets buried when they’ve been remarried one or more times. As noted in a 2003Wall Street Journal article, “The kids often want to reunite mom and dad in death, but the surviving stepparent has other ideas.” The article notes that it is never too early to discuss burial arrangements with loved ones and/or put preferences in writing so others are aware of them, especially if family relationships are complicated.