Read Part 1.
The Advanced Directive
The Advance directive or health care directive is a document that allows you to document your wishes concerning medical treatments at the end of life.1 Because every one of us will die, this document is important. If you think not consider this:
- The Terri Schiavo case2 and the debate about her wishes. Her husband said one thing and her parents disputed it. Her own wishes were never documented. Another such case was Karen Ann Quinlan.3
- In my own family a relative had a health care directive of sorts—it was from his church but he had never had it notarized and filed. When he was stricken there was a mild dispute among his offspring about whether his ventilator should be removed. The doctors themselves would not agree to remove it because his wishes were not officially documented. He lingered longer than was probably necessary.
- One might think, “that won’t happen to me!” In my own case I broke my neck in a serious accident when I was only 38. I was semi-conscious for a period of time. Decisions about my care had to be made.
- My own mother wisely had a health care directive. She specified that she did not want any extraordinary means to extend her life. It was clearly documented and so there was absolutely no debate. My siblings and I knew mom’s wishes. This past March she was given approximately a week to live. She told my sister, “I’m going to heaven!” And she died the next day.
Often the advanced directive, durable power of attorney, and will is bundled together as a package with either an attorney or an online service such as LegalZoom. So the cost is minimal. Additionally an attorney is not even needed for the advanced directive: See Download Your State’s Advance Directives.4
The Durable Power of Attorney
A power of attorney is a legal document that gives someone you choose the power to act in your place. In case you ever become mentally incapacitated, you’ll need what are known as “durable” powers of attorney for medical care and finances. A durable power of attorney simply means that the document stays in effect if you become incapacitated and unable to handle matters on your own… . With a valid power of attorney, the trusted person you name will be legally permitted to take care of important matters for you—for example, paying your bills, managing your investments, or directing your medical care—if you are unable to do so yourself. Taking the time to make these documents is well worth the small effort it will take. If you haven’t made durable powers of attorney and something happens to you, your loved ones may have to go to court to get the authority to handle your affairs.5
It’s advisable to have a separate Medical Power of Attorney and Financial Power of Attorney because personal medical information would be pertinent to one and not the other. The Wall Street Journal notes: “there is no legal document that is more crucial than a power of attorney.”6
As mentioned before, this document may be bundled with the services an attorney provides or via LegalZoom. I have not used this particular service myself but LawDepot.com has free legal forms and Power of Attorney is one such form they offer.7
Declutter & Organization
“Declutter” is not an actual word, while “unclutter” is. My wife jokingly told me just today: “these are two words not in your vocabulary.”
We did a long distance corporate move 20 years ago—it was the full shebang where the company did everything—even compensating us for new drapes. Kathee was working in Minneapolis, flying home on the weekends; and I was back in Denver working and trying to cook and manage the house. Movers came in and packed everything. As my wife would later relate, “they would pack a dirty tissue if you let them”.
We had lived in Denver for over 9 years and so we had 9 years of accumulated stuff on top of the accumulated stuff from the previous 22 years of marriage. In my college years I used to scuba dive. In a box were diving flippers. I hadn’t used them for over 20 years … still in a box labeled “flippers.”
That box got moved again.
Several years ago Kathee and I spent most of a day cleaning out our den. In the den we have a large oak desk. I had years and years of checking account statements. Whenever I received a statement I would balance the checkbook and attach a spreadsheet. Also in a drawer were many years of canceled checks. We about burned out our shredder that day. Finally, when the shredder overheated and gave up for the day (it was like a scene from “All the President’s Men”), we piled documents into black garbage bags and took the bags to an office supply store to be shredded.
Here’s the lesson: Declutter and do your heirs a great service. They will thank you for it!
Mom was a bookkeeper in her youth and fairly organized. She used to have one green-ledger style page for each month where she recorded every income and expense item. She also did a fairly good job of decluttering. She slipped a bit in the end because of her age and mental state, but nevertheless did not leave her children with a large mess.
A funny story is that in the week or two before Mom died, she told my sister there was money in her apartment (she was in the hospital at the time). So we siblings wondered … was she talking about $50? $1000? Just what? After her death, we sorted through her stuff and found … $10 in bills and coins!
Organization is perhaps the flip side of declutter. Organization answers these financial questions:
- What is important?
- Where is it?
- What are the details?
Mom did an A+ job on organization. Even though the conversation was often times uncomfortable, Mom would tutor me on my annual visit: This is what I have in stocks, here are the funeral arrangements, this is the will, et cetera!
One area where we had to help Mom. Dad retired from AT&T and they had a certain number of shares of AT&T. stock. His retirement was before the breakup of AT&T.8 in 1982 and Mom and Dad had their shares as paper certificates at home rather than as a book entry at a brokerage. Paper shares are quite rare today!9 The post breakup of AT&T. is rather complex: “Baby Bells” were created … some of them merged. And finally a Baby Bell acquired AT&T. and assumed that name. Every break up, merger, divestiture, et cetera generated more stock certificates. Mom wanted her estate divided three ways and her accounting method was to put yellow stickers on various certificates with the intention “these are Jimmy’s, these are Nancy’s, these are Roger’s”. That’s quite complex. With patient urging and education, we were able to direct Mom to have a relationship with a full service brokerage, Edward Jones, and they converted all of her shares to the bookkeeping entry method! I cannot imagine the difficulty of having to administer the estate had she had not followed our direction on this.
A worthwhile book is The American Way of Death.10 The premise of the book is that
death has become much too sentimentalized, highly commercialized, and, above all, excessively expensive … [the author] documents the ways in which funeral directors take advantage of the shock and grief of friends and relatives of loved ones to convince them to pay far more than necessary for the funeral.11
Mother preplanned and prepaid her funeral. She had a binder with the contract indicating it was fully paid and with all the pertinent details. There were two elements of the preplanned funeral: the funeral home and the cemetery. We had a bit of a wrinkle with the cemetery because it had changed hands more than once since Mom planned her funeral. The latest owners were not as professional as the funeral home. My sister, who was point person for this, was told that Mom hadn’t paid for a vault and that would be about $ 1000. My sister who herself is a retired airline executive really handled this well. It was “no contest” negotiating with her, as she had both the original contract and the professionalism to address the issue. Mom had paid for the vault and the issue quickly resolved.
Among other things about Mom’s funeral that we appreciate is the simplicity of it. While there was a casket, it was a simple steel Batesville casket—no wasted money being put into the ground!
By preplanning her funeral, Mom relieved her children of having to wonder about her wishes and debate it among ourselves (eliminating any possibility of dispute).
By prepaying for her funeral, costs were dramatically reduced. We did pay for a 3 man police escort from the funeral home to the cemetery, and for Mom’s obituary in the Fort Worth paper.
Speaking of caskets, did you know you can buy a casket at Costco?12 My brother-in-law has a humorous casket story. As he planned his mother-in-law’s funeral he shopped for caskets online. The funeral home disparaged that option warning that “the bottom could fall out of that casket”. While he did not buy the casket online, he was able to get the funeral home to match the online price. For one interested in a traditional simple wooden casket, Trappist Monks in Iowa will construct one and have it shipped to the funeral home.13
Executor of Estate
The Executor of the Estate is the person who will administer one’s estate. LegalZoom documents the top 10 Duties of an Executor:14
- Get a copy of the will and file it with the local probate court
- Notify banks, credit card companies and government agencies of the decedent’s death
- Set up a bank account for incoming funds and pay any ongoing bills
- File an inventory of the estate’s assets with the court
- Decide what kind of probate is necessary
- Maintain property until it can be distributed or sold
- Pay the estate’s debts and taxes
- Distribute assets
- Dispose of other property
- Represent the estate in court
I learned much from my brother-in-law’s handling of my father-in-laws’ estate. Kathee’s father died in the early 90’s and his estate had some interesting complexities. John had two houses in separate states. One house was in the very small town of Phlox Wisconsin. The practical complexity of remoteness of that home meant that there was not much demand. That sale took some time. Dave, my brother-in-law, had to sell two homes and dispose of all of the household contents. He did an admirable job in that while he himself lived in a third state, he administered all of these affairs and communicated monthly of the status of the estate with his siblings.
The executor’s job is basically project management. The skills that I advise are:
- One who is trusted by the heirs
- One who was familiar with the deceased—a son or daughter perhaps.
- One who while handle his fiduciary responsibilities ethically15
- One who will communicate effectively and regularly with the beneficiaries of the estate
- One who has some financial skills and is attentive to detail.
- Not a skill, but the executor’s tasks will be time consuming and this must be considered as well.
Most are familiar with the Benjamin Franklin quotation, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” and the proverb “you can’t take it with you” from the Pulitzer Prize winning Hart and Kaufman play of the same name.
Few may be familiar with the truths of the gospel: “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live’” (John 11:25).
One’s estate, the inventory of what the deceased leaves behind, may be materially significant; but one’s soul is of eternal worth and significance: “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
The wise steward will attend the second primarily—to be saved! Romans 10:9, “that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.”
But the wise steward will also attend to the material details of life, including his final affairs.