Getting Your Affairs in Order

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on January 19, 2022
4 min read

Most of us don't like to think about drawing up a will, signing "do not resuscitate" orders, or planning funeral services. So we don't. But when we're diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, these things suddenly take on a new urgency.

In the midst of coping with the medical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual challenges of serious illness, mundane logistical details must be managed as well. And if you don't address them now, someone else will have to address them later.

Before time begins to run short, it's important to make sure that you put everything in order as you would like it to be.

What are the most important things you need in end-of-life planning? The must-do list: A will, advance directives, durable power of attorney for health care decisions, and funeral and burial/cremation preferences.

More than half of U.S. adults don't have a will. But you need one, even if you don't have a vast estate to distribute among your heirs.

People who die intestate -- the legal term for "without a will" -- send their loved ones to court to navigate the probate process and to deal with dividing property while they're still grieving.

And ask yourself this: Do you want to determine where your assets go, or do you want the state to do it?

Writing a will isn't that difficult. There are a number of inexpensive online will writing programs. Better still, hire a family law attorney to help you draft one. The costs vary widely based on where you live and how much time your situation will require from the lawyer, but unless you have an enormous estate to divide, it shouldn't be bank breaking.

In addition to stipulating where you want your property to go, your will or an accompanying document should also include papers outlining your plans for guardianship of minor children, if you have any.

Sometimes called a living will, this document spells out the measures you would like taken, or not taken, to prolong your life. This document is legally binding. It's so important, WebMD has devoted a special article to advance directives.

Designating someone to have your power of attorney for health care does not mean you give up any power to make your own decisions. But there may come a point when you cannot speak for yourself. At that point, you will need someone to make decisions such as whether or not you would want to be kept alive on a ventilator.

This person should have a copy of your advance directives, and should know your specific wishes regarding the kinds of lifesaving measures you do and do not want.

Forms for assigning durable power of attorney for health care are available online.

When someone has just died, grieving family members must often think fairly quickly about plans for funerals or memorial services. In the immediate aftermath of death, it can be hard to focus on details such as what your favorite song was or what kind of burial you would prefer.

Sit down with someone you trust -- a social worker with your palliative care team can often help you brainstorm about important details -- and write down all the things that are important to you about your funeral, memorial service, and how your body is dealt with.

Some questions to think about:

  • Do you want a funeral or memorial service? In a church, synagogue, mosque, or somewhere else? Who should preside?
  • What would you like to have read, sung, or said at your service? Is there someone you would particularly like to have speak?
  • Would you like your body to be viewed after your death? By close family only?
  • Would you like to record an audio or video message for a service after your death?
  • How would you like your body to be dealt with? Do you prefer burial or cremation? How do you feel about organ donation or donating your body to medical research?

For all of these and other end-of-life planning issues, your palliative care team can help you find a financial planner, attorney, or other professional who can make sure that your wishes are carried out and respected.

It's also important to think about the personal side of estate planning, according to experts at, Capital Caring, which cares for more than 1,000 people living with advanced illness in the Washington, D.C. area daily. The experts say that before you appoint someone to carry out your health care power of attorney or to be the guardian of your children, you should ask the person first and talk through what the responsibilities will be and what your wishes are.

Also, in addition to legal, financial, and health care matters, don't forget to plan for your emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs. In other words, make your "bucket list." A list like this isn't just about going skydiving or seeing the Pyramids. It's about the things that matter most to you and ensuring that they are taken care of before you die. For example, if your grandson is getting married or your daughter is graduating from high school, your list might include being strong enough to attend those events or, if that's not possible, recording a loving message or writing a letter to share with them on that day.

When making all of these plans, the important thing is to talk openly with the people you love. Having those open conversations will help to make the transition easier and less painful for everyone. It will also help you deal with any unresolved issues.