Preparing for Inevitable Life Events

Mark Gavagan says it's time to get your affairs in order.

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Today's guest post comes from Mark Gavagan, author of two workbooks that help families plan and organize their personal and financial affairs: The It's All Right Here: Life & Affairs Organizer, an in-depth binder of information, and 12 Critical Things Your Family Needs To Know, which more quickly covers the essential topics.

Someday, each of us is going to die. It's not a question of if, only when, and what we will do in the meantime. Whether eight minutes or eighty years from now, it's inevitable.

But what if “someday” is tonight? If something were to happen to you or your spouse or parent tonight, would your loved ones be able to quickly and easily find all of the critical information and documents they'd need? Would they know and clearly remember all of your personal wishes, such as whether or not to donate your organs or cremate your body, or whether to keep you alive by artificial means, such as a feeding tube, while in a persistent vegetative state?

If your answer to these questions is a resounding yes, and everything is written-down and organized, stop reading—you're well prepared. For everyone else, here are five immediate steps you can take to begin organizing and documenting all of your personal and financial affairs. Discuss the following issues with your loved ones and then write down all of your decisions. (In some cases, you may want to use forms specific to your state.)

  • Advance Healthcare Directives: In the event you become incapacitated and cannot communicate on your own behalf, these specify the kind of care you wish to receive and appoint a trusted person (called your healthcare “agent” or “proxy” or “attorney in fact”) to make medical decisions for you. A good resource to learn more and access free advance healthcare directive forms for each state is the non-profit NHPCO's website.
    • Organ Donation Decisions: Donating organs and tissues when you die may save or enhance the lives of as many as 50 people. There is no cost to you in donating and open casket funerals can still take place afterwards. No one is too old or too young, so don’t rule yourself out as a potential donor. Even those with serious medical conditions often have many healthy and desperately needed organs and tissues to give. To learn more, including information about how more than two dozen religions regard organ, tissue and whole body donation, and to access your state’s specific donation documents, please visit this website run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
      • Outline Your Final Arrangement Preferences. Just a few sentences can be very helpful. Include how expensive they should be (either a general dollar range or simply “very inexpensive,” “moderate cost,” “higher priced,” or “premium”). Otherwise, loved ones may spend huge sums of money to “show” how much they care. Also, specify whether or not your body should be cremated; a description of any military burial/memorial benefits; and a description of prearranged or prepaid funeral plans or membership in any Memorial Society.
        • Outline All Your Assets and Liabilities: Try to be very thorough and include relevant details such as account or policy numbers, beneficiaries, where documents are located, company and contact person's information, and advisors. Be sure to include insurance policies, mutual fund and investment accounts, bank accounts, certificates of deposit, retirement plans, annuities, primary residences and other real estate, and private debts you owe or others owe to you. 
          • Wills and Trusts: Make sure these are current and accessible. Describe where the documents are located and include contact information for any advisors used, as well as the date, place, and method of creation.
          • Getting all of your family's personal and financial affairs in order involves more than the five steps above, but they're a great start on the most important issues. Discussing these points lays the groundwork for making sure your wishes are carried out. It gives loved ones a chance to understand your preferences, ask questions, and voice concerns. Another benefit of these discussions is that you'll uncover their preferences and hopefully motivate them to take the steps you're taking. Writing everything down addresses concerns that loved ones are apt to be overwhelmed in a crisis and unlikely to remember or all agree in their recollection of what was said.