Wealth Management in Real Life: What to Do When a Loved One Is Dying
My father was recently diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. The doctor has given him days-to-weeks. My siblings and I want to spend that time making him as comfortable and happy as humanly possible, but his wife has never been entirely comfortable around us and the usual awkwardness between us seems amplified in this situation. He has talked a little to each of us about his wishes for his estate and particularly his grandchildren, but she refuses to participate in these conversations (saying she hasn’t given up yet and doesn’t want to think about all of that). I’m concerned that this will just make things harder on everyone when he does pass. What can I do ensure our father’s wishes are followed and make this already difficult time a little less stressful for everyone?
These situations are difficult enough without family tensions intruding on everything. When there are family members who aren’t being cooperative, it’s helpful to take a step back and consider what’s best for the most important person here – your father.
You mention that your father has talked “a little” about the plans for his estate. Have you seen his formal estate plan? His last will and testament would be a good place to start. Tell him that you want to help him make sure that all his wishes are followed, and to that end, you’d like to have a chance to review and discuss his plans.
While his wife doesn’t need to be a part of this conversation, make sure your father knows that you have no intention of interfering with any inheritance he plans to leave her. Your purpose here should be ensuring that all his wishes will be carried out. If there are certain keepsakes or personal items that someone in your family is interested in, or that your father wanted someone to leave to a specific person, make sure you talk about these things too.
In addition to the will and other aspects of his estate plan (such as trusts and account beneficiary designations), there are other documents that your father should have in order as his final days arrive. Ideally, he would have discussed these things with you, your siblings, and his wife long before they were needed. But even if that didn’t happen, it’s not too late to try to get them in place.
For his medical needs, your first priority should be to find out if he has or wants a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order, which means that if extraordinary measures are required, the patient requests that CPR or other life-support procedures should not be performed. A DNR can only be created by a physician. He or she will discuss your father’s wishes with him, then write up the order to be kept with his chart.
A living will is a bigger-picture version of the DNR. It includes all your father’s instructions and wishes for his treatment should he become too ill to communicate. It would more broadly delineate what kind of care your dad does or doesn’t want. Among other things, this can relieve family members of the guilt of having to make tough decisions on your father’s behalf.
A living will is a binding legal document. Because of that, each state issues legal forms you can download from the Internet and fill out with your dad. As with other legal issues, however, it might be best to consult with an attorney before making any final decisions or elections.
A durable power of attorney for health care allows your dad to name someone who can make medical decisions for him. That might be you, but if he wants his wife to fill that role, you’ll have to make sure she is willing to take on that responsibility. Either way, he should name initial and successor agents to ensure there will be someone to act on his behalf.
You may also want to talk to your father about taking over his financial affairs. You’d probably want to look into a durable power of attorney for property, which allows you to act on your father’s behalf even past the point where he is unable to make his own decisions (in contrast to a general power of attorney, which ends at the moment he is not able to act).
Lastly, be sure your dad has signed a HIPAA Authorization form. This is typically part of the durable power of attorney for health care, but it can also be a stand-alone document. HIPAA rules govern the privacy of medical information and limit who is able to access your personal records. Without a signed authorization, your dad’s medical providers may not be able to share with you the information you need to care for your dad the way he intended.
Whenever you take one of these steps, you should alert your father’s wife about what you have done. It might be the impetus she needs to get more involved in your dad’s end-of-life care, but at the very least, she deserves to know what’s going on in her husband’s situation. If she refuses to talk to you, write up the basics in a brief letter and hand that to her to read at her own convenience. You want to do everything in your power to ensure that she can’t subsequently claim ignorance of the situation.
Given the inherent legal complexities of deathbed estate planning and the potential for emotional complications getting int he way of productive conversation, it would be wise to consult an attorney - especially if discussions could lead to changes in existing documents. And remember that everyone in your father’s family deserves to be heard, including his wife. What she’s going through is every bit as difficult as what you’re going through, so showing her kindness at this moment might be the first step toward healing the rift between you.
This is a very difficult time for all involved. If you need further assistance in navigating the financial or estate planning aspects of your father’s passing, please see your Baird advisor for help.