In April of 2017, my family received devastating news when my mother-in-law called us one day from Florida. Through tears and sharp, sad breathing, she told us that the sudden onset asthma symptoms she'd been coping with during the previous six months were actually the signs of terminal, stage 4 lung cancer. Her prognosis was finite, she only had months remaining to live, and with that news, we were instantly stripped of any hope for a cure.
When the cancer diagnosis came, we felt suspended in a distant and lonely state of shock. But Nancy, my mother-in-law, went straight into action. “I need to get my things in order”, she said; and over the next week or two she repeated this mantra when we'd call for updates and next steps. When she resurfaced, she told us that she held a small life insurance policy. Her children were beneficiaries. She made copies of the policy number and a proof of insurance letter, and gave them to both sons to hold.
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In those moment, we didn't care about the insurance papers, nor the money for the grand children that she spoke of–we were still in pain over the diagnosis. We were unable to think ahead to the financial impact of her death, because the immediate thought of losing her was so much to bear. As a nurse, I had cared for many patients as they passed through the final stages to death. I accept that dying is inevitable. However, in the past few months I have learned that losing a loved one “before their time” is jarring, depressing, heart breaking.
She lost her short battle with cancer eight months later, on December 12th, 2017. Writing about dying feels morose since we are still actively mourning her loss. Still, I think it's important to push through those feelings, and share my thoughts–hopefully helping others to take action on end of life planning. The following is what we have in place at this time as it relates to our assets and our family. We have worked to make sure that if anything happens to either of us, as parents, the other won't need to worry about finances when staring in the face of shock and possibly depression.
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Action Steps We've Taken
What can you do today to protect your family in case you leave them unexpectedly? What should your significant other do to protect you and your children? Here are a few things I have done to ease the burden of a loss for my family.
1. I have a notarized Will and Testament in a safe place, and I let family know where it is. I have a benefit through work called prepaid legal services. Many government employers and companies have this service. Through this program I was able to have a will drawn up by a lawyer. At the time I had a home, investments, a car and savings. I included instructions about these items. For instance, if beneficiaries of your life insurance are currently minors, you may want to keep the assets protected until they reach a certain age. You can specify these instructions through the will.
Make sure to update the will when there are changes in your situation. Since my will was drafted three years ago, I have started a profitable business. At some point I will need to add this asset to the will.
2. We have term life insurance in place until the kids reach a certain age. How much insurance do you need to buy and for how long? You should call an insurance agent for more direction, but the standard answer is 20-25 times your annual salary plus debt obligations. So, If you make $25,000 a year, you would need a policy of $625,000 in insurance. It would replace your household contribution for the next 25 years, which would be nice if your children are very young.
3. Beneficiaries are listed on all of my accounts. Retirement, pension, savings accounts, insurances and anything else with a beneficiaries line has one listed. I add the values up to make sure that each person is getting the share of my assets that I would like them to have.
4. I have a safe and a paper file box that includes all copies of my documents. My parents, sister, husband, and children know my financial wishes. My husband and parents know my medical wishes, and my will lists my health care proxy. It would be a good idea for me to revisit my health care desires and make sure my health care power of attorney is up to date.
5. I keep my birth certificate, social security card and other state documents in a file that is clearly labeled.
Protecting Our Loved Ones
When you leave this world, your loved ones will feel like it is too much to bear. And yet, all around them, time and life will continue on. I know that if I passed away tomorrow, my children and husband would be cloudy minded and devastated. Knowing that their lives continue on as easily as possible in my absence is my lasting wish–and these documents are the best way to ensure that outcome.
What documents do you have in place? What should I add to my list?