Estates 101: Directives and Documentation

Okay.  This is the section of the series that I probably need to say the least about, because every other thing you hear about preparing for death nowadays tells you to have a living will.  But there’s a lot more you can do to prepare your loved ones to make some decisions which are not as legally momentous but which will still be emotionally challenging in a painful time.

Finding the documents. I speak from very personal experience on this one: make absolutely certain your family knows where the will, living will, and any other instructions, can be found.  Nothing caused me more anxiety in the week of the funeral than trying to find my mom’s will, even though I would have bet a thousand dollars that it named me her executor and sole heir.  (We eventually did, and I was right.)

Living will. More formally known as an “advance health care directive.”  This is the probably the most important thing to think about and to discuss with your family.  It might suck to spend the rest of your life wondering if you should have buried your mom in the white dress instead of the purple one — but how much more painful will it be to spend it wondering if she wanted to be revived?

Have the advance care directive legally set down if possible (details and procedure varies by state).

Organ donation.  Make sure your family knows if you wish to permit your organs to be donated (assuming, of course, that your cause of death permits it), or if you wish them not to.

Autopsy. If you suspect that medical malpractice or misadventure has claimed the life of a loved one, you can request an autopsy be performed to provide additional documentation and evidence of the deceased’s condition.  Some hospitals, especially teaching hospitals, will perform autopsies free of charge on persons who died there; others will charge several thousand dollars for the service.

It is possible to have a body transported from the hospital of death to a facility which does autopsies for hire; this may run in the three to five thousand dollar range. These are definitely not easy options, but I mention them nonetheless.

Why do I include this in this installment of our series?  Well, some people’s religious views may suggest that performing an autopsy would be disrespectful. I would strongly urge people to consider it, if there’s real doubts about the competence of the medical staff involved.

Will. If you’ve been paying attention to this series of articles, by now you know this is important too, but there’s no harm in reiterating the point.

Other instructions and notes for family.  In addition to the will, you may choose to provide written instructions about any of the other matters we’ll cover in this article.  As long as they don’t conflict with the will and are not required to be legally binding, you don’t have to worry too much (or at all) about this being witnessed or notarized, but you need to have some confidence that your heirs will respect it if so.

And be clear.  “Please give my favorite ring to Bob and my favorite teapot to Jane” is going to cause your family a lot of agony if they’re not absolutely certain which ring or teapot were your favorites — or worse, who Bob and Jane are.  Use full names and be very explicit in expressing your wishes.  “Please give my white gold ring with the rose motif and sapphires to Bob Klein and my teapot with the Union Jack on it to Jane Jefferson” is much better.

It’s also reasonable to write a more personal note to your family in this document.  My mother ended her instructions with a personal note to me which told me nothing about her feelings that I didn’t already know — but it still means the world to me that she said it one last time.  Personally, I would advise against putting something in here that they don’t already know: if you leave them with a confession of some kind, they may wish they had had a chance to discuss it with you, if only to forgive you or to sympathize.  Don’t keep secrets from your closest loved ones.  Share them and discuss them while you still can.

Finally: make sure your handwriting is legible.  Ideally you’ll know this the easy way, by going over the instructions in advance with your loved ones.  Let them read through them and make sure they understand every point.

If you ever revise this document, make sure the previous version is destroyed.  The last thing you want to do is to leave people conflicting instructions and wonder which is right.  It may be best to put a date on the document, so if you do accidentally leave multiples behind, people can see which one was more recent.  (A formal legal will generally has language to the effect that it supersedes and replaces all previous wills you’ve made.)

What are some of the decisions you can make about your funeral that you might want to prepare?  Do you want the list?  It’s gigantic.  And it will be the next entry in the series.

Disclaimer: I AM NOT A LAWYER.  NONE OF WHAT I SAY HERE SHOULD BE CONSTRUED AS LEGAL ADVICE.  A LICENSED LAWYER SHOULD BE CONSULTED ON ALL LEGAL MATTERS PERTAINING TO ESTATES. The purpose of this article is to tell you some things I learned in the process of dealing with my mom’s estate, which you may want to think about in planning your own estate or dealing with a loved one’s estate.  Furthermore, details of some of these matters differ from state to state, so if you’re not in Pennsylvania, things may be different.  Consult your lawyer on all matters.