I lost a client last week, and like other times when I have lost a client, I learned something very important. My friend Marge didn't leave our firm for another advisor—she passed away. It's hard to think about death being a blessing, but in her case, it might have been.
You see, Marge suffered from Alzheimer's disease for many years. Not that long ago, she was a vibrant and dynamic lady. She was active in her church and other social circles. She was a competitor on the tennis court and was a proud mom, grandmother, and great-grandmother. The mean and nasty disease that is Alzheimer's slowly took her away. First it took her away from the tennis court. Then it took her away from her friends and her church. Finally, and most painfully, it took her away from her family. Marge was physically strong and healthy, but her mind slowly and steadily grew weaker, taking her personality and memories away. She spent the last seven or eight years confined to a nursing home, a lonely and expensive way to spend the last years of her life.
What did I learn from a lady who spent the last several years in a nursing home, unable to communicate? I didn't realize the lesson until my wife and I attended her funeral service last weekend. She taught me that it's never too early to plan for the end of life. We are all going to pass away someday. We don't know when it's going to happen, and hopefully it will come after we've lived a long and full life. But whenever it comes, it's easier for everyone if we do some planning about how we want the final chapter of our story to play out.
Marge had done her end-of-life planning long before she became sick. She had spent time thinking about whether she wanted to be buried or cremated. She thought about the memorial service she wanted, down to the songs and biblical passages she wanted as part of the service. She put her wishes in writing and made sure that her daughter knew about them. Not only did her planning allow for her wishes to be carried out the way she wanted, but it allowed the family to prepare for the service without the additional emotional burden of trying to guess what Mom would have wanted.
We all have physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Thinking about, and planning for, our own funeral is not easy or fun. But if we do, we can allow our friends and family to focus on celebrating our life and our memories when the time comes. And planning is the only way to make sure that what we want to happen, actually happens.
Here are a few ideas that can make the process easier:
First, make sure your estate documents are up to date. Make sure your will is current. It is the document that will identify the loved one who will oversee wrapping up your estate. They will distribute your property according to your wishes. While you are making sure that your will is up to date, it's a good time to make sure you have named a power of attorney and a health care surrogate. This will be the person (or people) whom you trust to make financial and health care decisions on your behalf in case you are unable to.
Burial or cremation? Many of us have strong beliefs about which we prefer. Both choices come with several other decisions for you to consider. If you prefer burial, do you want in-ground or mausoleum? What type of casket would you like? If you want to be cremated, what do you want to happen with your remains?
Traditional funeral or celebration of life? This will often depend on your religious beliefs. My friend Marge had a traditional Catholic funeral service. I would prefer a gathering of friends with some music that I have chosen for the occasion and maybe a few folks sharing memories. What about you?
The funeral industry likes to promote prepaid services to ease the burden on your loved ones. I'm not a big proponent of these arrangements because your plans might change between the time you prepay and the time you pass away. I think it's often better to earmark some of your financial assets to cover the costs when the time comes.
The other benefit of doing your own planning is to minimize any family conflicts. It is almost inevitable that, without a plan in place, some family dynamics will make the process more costly and emotional than it will already be.
We are coming to the end of 2017. I challenge you to make a goal to have an end-of-life plan in place before we ring in the new year. It will make you a bit uncomfortable for a little while, but the peace of mind it will bring you afterward will be well worth it.