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Putting Affairs in Order Before Death

Experts explain the steps you should take to make sure your family knows your wishes on everything from funeral plans to end-of-life care.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

See Paris. Swim with a dolphin. Skydive.

They're on almost every list of things you should do before you die.

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But what about those things you really should do before you die? They may not be fun, but they will bring you peace of mind today, and provide guidance to the friends and family members you leave behind.

"I think there's an emotional obstacle to this kind of planning," says Charles Sabatino, director of the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging. "I think the unspoken belief is that death is optional."

Sabatino lists five things that everyone should do before they die:

No.1. Give someone durable power of attorney to manage your affairs if you become sick and unable to do so yourself.

"Who is going to pay your bills, deposit your checks, manage your financial affairs and your business if you have one," says Sabatino. "We're going to live a lot longer in general, and most of us will live under some chronic condition or disability that will impair us. The goal is to live with as much control and quality of life as possible."

No. 2. Write a will. That may be sufficient estate planning for most people now that estates worth up to $2 million are tax exempt (in 2009 that will go up to $3.9 million).

"People tend to create a trust to reduce estate taxes and avoid probate, but taxes are less of a concern these days," said Sabatino. "So is probate, because the procedures have been simplified in many states, so many people find they don't need a trust. A will and durable power of attorney usually will take care of things."

Living Will

No. 3. Write an advanced-care directive or living will, and give someone medical power of attorney to carry out your wishes about medical treatment at the end of your life.

"Name someone you trust totally," says Sabatino.

Without this, you could end up like Terri Schiavo, the Florida woman who triggered a battle between her husband and her parents after a heart attackheart attack left her with massive brain damage. Her husband claimed she would not want to be kept alive in such a condition, but her parents disagreed.

"A durable power of attorney for health care enables you to appoint someone as your proxy to make health care decisions for you," says Sabatino.

Aging With Dignity has prepared a "Five Wishes" document that outlines such personal care decisions in plain English. Go to www.agingwithdignity.org or call 1-888-594-7437.

No. 4. If you have dependent children, name a guardian to take care of them. If you have a disabled child, you may also need to consult a professional who can guide you through the labyrinth of Medicaid and Medicare rules.

"Find a specialist who understands the benefits that may be available under Medicaid and Medicare, and who understands how those benefits can coordinate with asset planning," Sabatino says. "If you leave everything to a disabled child, he or she won't be eligible for aid. They will have to use up the entire estate before they qualify for aid. More thoughtful planning would allow the estate to complement public benefits. This is a growing specialty called special-needs planning."

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