How To Ensure Your Last Wishes Are Honored

It's not fun to think about. You've worked hard your whole life, and as you approach your golden years, you know you need to find a way to ensure that your last wishes will be honored in the event of your death, or if you become incapacitated. It's tempting to ignore these issues, but be forewarned; if you don't come up with a plan, the state will come up with one for you when the time comes.

It might seem like an overwhelming task, but it's a bit more manageable when broken down into bite sized chunks. If you take it on issue by issue, one at a time, you'll find it's not too difficult. So, where to start? Let's start with decisions about your health care.

Health Decisions

While 75% of American polled believe "advance directives" are a good idea, only 20% of the population actually complete them. Aim to be part of that 20%. You can download the form from an organization called "Partnership for Caring", and doesn't take long to fill out. This document will let your loved ones and health care providers know your decisions regarding the type of medical treatment you would want in case you are not able to speak for yourself. Your lawyer can also draw up the form with you as well as a "health care power of attorney", a legal document that assigns someone else the authority to make health care decisions for you in the event you are incapacitated. An excellent website with good information about these documents is To decide between different levels of end-of-life treatment, you may want to consult your doctor. Discuss your wishes with the person you designate as your health care proxy and your doctor. Make sure you let your family know you have these documents. In case of admittance to a hospital you may have to provide them a copy, and your lawyer should also keep a copy for you.

Execution of Your Estate

You can do this on your own, but it's extremely time-consuming and somewhat difficult. Hiring a lawyer who specializes in estate planning is usually a good investment, unless you would enjoy spending many hours becoming an expert on the intricacies of your state's laws. Before consulting with an estate planning professional, figure out the answers to a few basic questions first. Do you want a delayed inheritance for younger offspring? Is there anyone you want to specifically disinherit? If you own your own business, what sort of plan do you need for its succession? Do you have a disabled adult child that you want to make sure will be cared for after your death? Your plan needs to be reviewed once every 1-3 years; as your life circumstances change you will want to ensure that it doesn't become irrelevant to your present circumstances Choosing the executor for your estate is also an important decision. You will want someone who is both competent and has the time to take on this task. If you anticipate there may be disagreement between your heirs, the executor will often have to be the arbitrator to bring the parties together. In a future article we will examine the role of the executor, and considerations in making this assignment.

Caring For Your Pets

Providing for the care of your beloved pets can be part of your estate plan, or you can specify a desired caretaker in a last will and testament. You can give a loved one "Durable Power of Attorney" over a portion of your estate, and provide them with the funds to feed and provide medical care for your pet. In most states you can also set up a trust for your pet, as you would a child. While you can name your pet in your will, be careful about leaving large sums of money which could end up being challenged by other heirs. The Humane Society offers a six-page fact sheet and other information that can help you decide how to care for your pet should you become incapacitated. Get the kit at or by calling (202) 452-1100.

Charity Bequests

Most people who decide to donate a portion of their estate to charity after their death specify a certain percentage of what remains after taxes and debts have been paid off. This is done as a part of the will, and called a "general bequest". If you wish to donate everything to charity, it's called a "residual bequest", and if you only want to donate to charity under certain circumstances, it's called a "contingent bequest".

The Obituary

You can write your own obituary, or lay out the general framework of the key points you want addressed about your life, for someone else to write. If you write your own, make sure to give a copy to your lawyer for safe keeping. Obituary has good tips on how to write an obituary, and also offers a template you can use to help with the structure and content.

The Memorial Service and other Final Decisions

Making arrangements for and decisions about your funeral or memorial service yourself, in advance, is a wonderful and loving gesture towards your family members. Your family will be in mourning and find making these decisions difficult, so the more you can do in advance to make the process easier on them, the better. If you anticipate having a memorial service in a church, you may want to choose your favorite hymns. Perhaps you would like to designate a charity for donations in lieu of flowers. Are there pictures you especially like of yourself, or with your family? You can choose to have them displayed at the service. Some people find great comfort in making these decisions, so that their last wishes are understood and followed. You can also set aside the funds for you burial or cremation, and funeral or memorial service as part of your estate. Be sure to leave a copy of your wishes and plans with your lawyer.

Taking care of these issues need not be a depressing matter. Don't be afraid to consult with your spouse or best friend as you work through these plans, and don't attempt to do it all at once. Most importantly, remember that making these arrangements really won't hasten your death, no matter how much it might seem like it. To the contrary, having these plans in place will give you peace of mind, so you can enjoy your golden years to their fullest.