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Planning for Death – The Money and Death Taboo

I wasn’t planning to begin my blogging experience with this subject but it’s been on my mind for the past few weeks. Planning for death. In specific – finances, funerals and estates. Yup, I’m going to talk about two taboo subjects in one post – money and death.

No one likes to think about his or her own death or the potential loss of a loved one, much less talk about it. I’m not sure how this differs in other cultures, but I’ve found it rarely discussed openly between family and friends in advance of a sudden illness, scary medical diagnosis or an actual death. We want to think we have all the time in the world or that only really, really old people die. Right? I’m not entirely comfortable talking about it. Life and death are sacred. I know people battling illnesses and I would not want anyone to think that money should be in the forefront of their thoughts. But I do feel that talking about difficult topics can be easier if the discussion can occur before an event or crisis forces the conversation at the worst possible time.

By the time you reach middle age chances are that you’ve experienced the loss of an elderly grandparent or an accident or illness that shortened the life of someone you knew. The awareness that death happens and what it means is a sadness of maturing into adulthood. Losing a child – I can’t even imagine. Personally, I’ve lost my father, three grandparents, two uncles, one aunt, two very close friends and several co-workers. My stepfather died just a few weeks ago suddenly but not unexpectedly, after several years in a nursing home. It reminded me how glad I am that my mother and I had discussions about wishes and funeral planning a few years back.

How can you prepare for it? I’m not sure there is a way to prepare for grief itself or the mind-numbing shock and disbelief. I do think there are planning steps that can be taken that reduce some of the burden of those left behind at the time they are dealing with the grief and sadness. Decision making in a stressful time is hard. Financial decisions often have to be made at a time when emotion is winning the battle against logic.

I’ll put it right out there.

If your parent died, do you know who would pay for a funeral or final services? Do you know where the money would come from? I chose that example because most adults would be expected to be financially responsible for their own expenses. As their child you might feel morally responsible for it, even if you don’t have the resources or it causes a hardship. You may want to pay for everything and the cost is not an issue for your family. You may not have had a what-if discussion with your siblings or parents. Are there documents in place that will keep you, a grieving spouse or other relative from being taken advantage of in the time of stress and confusion? Life insurance or other assets might make paying for services a non-issue. Would you know what he or she wanted to make the funeral or memorial reflect their personal wishes and beliefs?

I can only share that it was a big relief to me that my Mom took my advice (suggestions/prodding/nagging) and had a plan in place to select and prepay for funeral expenses and burial for her husband. She selected and put the policy in place with the advice of her attorney at a time when she had barely the resources to set it up. When the time came she was able to select the funeral home of her choice. She planned ahead for a uniform and military honor guard for the services. It went smoothly and she was pleased with the services. And there were no surprises.

Maybe it’s selfish of me to feel relief that the costs for the services did not suddenly fall on me. There were no uncomfortable discussions required with other members of his family. My mom has few financial resources but she has been able to maintain her independence. I often feel the burden of being a responsible person. I also feel that she was able to cope better with the sad experience because so many decisions were already made. She had her paperwork in order. She was in control. I did review the funeral home contract line by line before she signed it, to try to ensure that she was not being charged for things covered by her prepayment policy. I’m very proud of her.

The message I really want to convey here is for you to consider what you can do to plan for death. Can you influence someone you love to plan ahead? If someone had to deal with the loss of YOU, what steps could you take in advance to help them get through it? Is there a way to make any decisions in advance so they can make your remembrance a celebration of your life experiences? Can you resolve any family issues or set boundaries that might prevent new ones regarding the settlement of your estate or your final wishes? Can you think of it as a gift of love that you are planning in advance, and not a morbid topic to be avoided?

I learned quite a bit by searching the internet for “planning for death” information. Take a look. You may not be comfortable talking about money and death. Here are some things to consider and some actions you can take right now:

- If there is money available from a source such as life insurance, family members may feel obligated to go all out on a funeral. You can reduce their vulnerability to this by setting guidelines around your expectations. Maybe you don’t want a fancy service. More and more people are also choosing less expensive cremation.

- States, cities, churches, funeral homes may subsidize the burial of people without sufficient resources. These subsidies are another social service being cut as fewer funds are available. Illinois recently cut funeral payments to the poor completely.

- Information is available from organizations such as Funeral Consumers Alliance. Their website has many informational links including “Who Has the Right to Make Decisions About Your Funeral?” Many states have laws protecting your final wishes if you have made them in writing.

- Review the list of must-have estate documents you need while you are alive and get them in place. If you are in a committed relationship that is not recognized as a legal marriage they are even more crucial. Lots of advice is available on the web on these documents. Do-it-yourself forms are great for discussion and capturing basic information regarding your wishes in advance of meeting with an attorney, but never sign a contract or legal document of any kind without having it reviewed by a lawyer.

1. A Last Will and Testament. Have kids? You owe it to them to put your wishes in writing for a guardian in the event of your death. Who do you want to get your property?
2. A Durable Healthcare Power of Attorney. Who do you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are unable?
3. A Durable Financial Power of Attorney. Who do you trust to pay your bills, manage your business or watch over your finances on your behalf if you are unable?
4. Consider a Revocable Living Trust for you assets. There are advantages regarding probate in the event of death.

- The article Nice Girls Talk About Estate Planning by Deborah L. Jacobs from Forbes provides insight into ways to initiate conversations about estate planning.

- New businesses such as AfterSteps are bringing digital platforms to death planning. AfterSteps is a startup created by two Harvard students as part of DreamIt Ventures.

I’m interested if you are having these conversations with your family. Have any methods for opening the topic to conversation worked for you?

All my best,

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What are Periwinkle Years?

To me, they represent the second half of my life. These years while I reassess what to do with my time and what I still want to accomplish. How to create security as I head into retirement. How to discover a new passion. I'm on that journey. Maybe you are ready to create a new adventure too. What do you dream of doing?