Estate planning enables you to guide decisions affecting your life when you are no longer able to do so. When you’re alive and able, you simply make your own financial and medical decisions. Core documents for estate planning are wills, trusts, powers of attorney for financial affairs, and advance healthcare directives.
But there’s a big difference between you representing yourself and a piece of paper representing your wishes.
So what can you do to add greater understanding about your wishes—so that your choices and values are represented when you are no longer able to make your own decisions regarding your affairs?
In our recent Women’s Circle discussion series, we contemplated just this question. Here are some strategies we discussed to enhance your estate planning documents, including a helpful list of ways to communicate your wishes, with links to some handy templates to help you prepare.
Bring life & meaning to health care proxy docs
Advance health directives address critical care related decisions. (These are very important documents for everyone over eighteen to have in place. They are free, do not require a notary, and if you’re not a California resident and thus can’t use ours, you can find copies for your state here.)
Advance directives handle critical things, especially if you take the time to add your own voice to it. One Circle participant who was a healthcare proxy for her father agonized over whether or not she should have authorized an operation that went wrong, but when she took a moment to revisit his words and his health care directive, she was able to take tremendous comfort that she had in fact made the decision he would’ve made for himself.
But these legal forms aren’t necessarily great at conveying your wishes about how you want to live in times of sickness.
What is the minimum level of activity you need to be able to perform following a medical procedure to make that procedure worthwhile? For one Circle participant, it was being able to read books and to go outside with her family.
How about other aspects of living during a period of illness? What does comfort and good care mean to you? If someone is looking out for you, how do they do that well?
What about other details related to how you should be treated: Do you want music on, or silence? Momentos from home? Who do you want in the room?
If, after treatment, you can’t live on your own, what you want to do? Would you like to stay with family? Go to an assisted living community? Have someone care for you in your home? And who pays for this, and how?
How you want to incorporate your spirituality and faith into your care is another aspect typically beyond the purview of legal documents. If a nurse asks you, “Are you a spiritual person?” What would you say?
Communicate your values & the “why” underlying your choices
As we all know, fair does not always mean equal. Sometimes there are very good reasons to leave unequal bequests to children. Perhaps you helped one with graduate school, or a house, or a loan to start a business.
And you want to even it up.
It may be fair and equitable, but if your children don’t know why you’ve done this, instead of communicating fairness, your decisions can be misunderstood which would convey a sense of unfairness. And you won’t be around to clear that up.
It’s best to have these conversations early and often.
If you have personal belongings that you want to go to a specific person, you might want to gift it while you’re alive. There are countless stories of siblings not talking to one another over a ring, or a chair, or photo.
No legal document is going to be an effective substitute for you, personally. Communication can help bridge the context gap.
There are several informal communications that can be a great help in conveying your values and intent:
1. Letters of Instruction are very important guides for those who survive you or will be acting on your behalf. How does someone find your online passwords, know where your bank and investment accounts are, located, or how to pay your bills? Who are the professionals who can assist your successors? Letters of instruction can answer these questions and be a tremendous help. Here is a template you can download and make your own.
2. Letters to Guardians discuss how to care for your children. Include what values you hope to have communicated in the raising of your children.
3. Letters of Intent to those charged with carrying out your estate plan. These are not legally binding, but can help provide guidance on your intentions.
4. Ethical Wills and Legacy Letters to your spouse, children and other loved ones express your values and your hopes and dreams for the future. These can express your wishes and even forgiveness of others. A couple of our Circle participants had family members who provided recordings—with hilarious outtakes—that really made their loved ones feel cherished.
5. Conversations with your family members about what care you want and don’t want. How you plan to look out for one another in the event of incapacity and death.
Open communication can be challenging but talking about these ideas early and less emotionally charged is recommended. One woman’s family had the “morbid” talk every year at the end of holiday dinners—the kids rolled their eyes at the time, but really valued it down the road.
Don't forget to follow up
And following up will be easier with practice, once you've had a conversation or two about your wishes.
- Always make sure your next of kin know whether you have an estate plan, or just a will, and where the documents can be found.
- Make sure the people you’ve named in your documents know they’re named.
- Make sure you give copies of your medical directives to those you have named.
At some point, challenging times happen to all of us and our loved ones.
It can be empowering to prepare for all stages of life, especially when you realize that the process of taking care of these estate planning details actually helps you care for those who ultimately might end up caring for you. Once more, the Circle taught us new insights and reminded us of smart ways to honor our loved ones and ourselves. Thoughtful estate planning and communication can make things easier, and bring comfort, ease, and even humor to dark times.
What gift will your advanced estate planning, tailored to your values, bring to you and your loved ones?
Sign up for the Women’s Circles mailing list and we’ll keep you in the loop! Coming up in July, the next Circle discussion will focus on balancing investment risk and your “sleep at night” factor.