Monday, May 05, 2014

Where There's a Will....

There’s that old saying, “Where there’s a will, there are relatives.” And anyone who has ever gone through the family feuding and squabbling that far too often goes on when a close relative dies knows it can be a pretty ugly experience.

When I was a child, my father’s side of the family—a dysfunctional lot at best—held an annual family picnic which would invariably end up in just short of a general brawl over the disposition of the belongings of some distant family member who had died years before.

No one likes to think about death. There is a built in hands-over-the-ears, La-la-la-la reaction to shut out the thought. We are conveniently able to convince ourselves that our own death is a long, long way off. No need to worry about it now. Well, it may or may not be a long way off, but unless you’ve prepared for it, you’re dumping a whole lot of potential extra grief on those closest to you at exactly the time they are least prepared to deal with it. 

If you don’t want to be a burden on others while you’re alive, why should you suddenly dump the responsibility for trying to guess what you want done with your affairs after you’re dead?

Make a will—and keep it as simple as possible. While can do it all by yourself—there are forms available on line—it’s preferable, if for no other reason than peace of mind, to have an attorney familiar with your state’s laws do it for you. I was executor of my friend Norm’s will, in which he bequeathed varying sums of money to at least eight different charities. Because each beneficiary must be notified in writing and given a considerable amount of time to respond, sign papers saying they will not be contesting the will, etc. before the estate can close, this delayed the closing of Norm’s estate by several months. Had he simply given me, as executor, written instructions as to whom he wanted to receive how much when the estate closed, I could simply have written them a check and been done with it.

Do not only make a will, but leave separate, detailed instructions for the executor of that will and anyone else you think should know the contents, outlining your wishes…in writing…from funeral arrangements to the disposition of your possessions. If you want Cousin Beth to have your grandmother’s tea set, say so in writing. Don’t put her in the position of creating bad feelings among or, worse, open conflict with other relatives who might also want it.

State laws vary. In Illinois, for example, there is an “Illinois Power of Attorney for Health Care” which lets you name someone — your agent — to make decisions about your medical care if you can no longer speak for yourself. The form lets you set down your wishes regarding organ donation, life-sustaining treatment, burial arrangements, and other advance-planning issues to help your agent make these decisions. Go on line to check out the laws of your own state. 

Remember that any Powers of Attorney you may have which allow a specified person to make financial and/or health decisions for you, end at the moment of your death. When Norm died, even though I had had his Powers of Attorney and was the executor of his will, the nursing home in which he died was not even obligated to—and in fact did not—notify me of his death because my Power of Attorney had ended. State laws undoubtedly vary, but the executor/Power of Attorney holder, in Illinois at least, cannot even authorize the release the body to the funeral home—that must come from the next of kin.

Be sure to let everyone know, in writing, your pre-death wishes regarding such things as whether or not you wish to be resuscitated should your heart stop. These “DNR” (“Do Not Resuscitate”) forms are often requested or required by hospitals. Be sure you have signed one. If you wish to be an organ donor—and why would you not? You’re beyond need of them, and they could save the or improve the lives of others who desperately need them—make sure you have a signed Organ Donor card in your billfold or purse!

Think back on your own experiences with the death of a loved one; especially if you were he one charged with making the arrangements following the death. Remember the trauma and the confusion and the pressures and the tsunami of details, then do everything you can to make sure that when you die, those responsible for making these decisions need not go through more than they need to.

This blog started with an old saying and will end with another: the problem with life is that no one gets out alive. No matter how we wish not to think about it, you won’t. I won’t. Just be sure that when the time does come, whenever it may be, you’ve done whatever you can to prepare for it and made it as easy as possible for others to deal with.

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (, which is also available as an audiobook (

1 comment:

Kage Alan said...

I was inclined at first to say "slightly morbid" in regards to the post, but having gone through it in the last year, it makes perfect sense. We are in the process of having a will drawn up for us, too. The idea is to keep things as simple as possible.

Very wise blog post, D.