Estate Planning with a Terminal Diagnosis
Last updated: October 2020
Disclaimer--this article is about my estate planning, no one else's. I'm a lawyer, yes, but only in Florida. This article does not constitute legal advice in any way. If you have questions about what legal documents may best serve you and your family, consult with a lawyer! Please, consult with a lawyer.
When I was in law school, my Estate Planning professor said this:
"Any time your life changes, you need to examine and potentially update your estate planning documents."
I took that statement to heart and before we got married, my husband and I had our advance directives, wills, and life insurance in place. While he may have thought I was thinking of assassinating him for the life insurance money on our honeymoon, I was simply making sure we'd covered our bases. When we had our first child, then our second, and then when I was diagnosed, those documents were pulled out and reviewed.
It's uncomfortable to plan for death
I have to say that my review of our documents, of the planning we'd discussed at various times, was COMPLETELY different this last time. The last time we reviewed all of our documents as soon after my terminal diagnosis when we were really talking about the details of how my husband would care for our boys as a widower, where they would live, who would be caring for them. The discussion of who might be the guardians for our boys when we are both gone and they are still minors was full of angst and terror.
When I had to really look at, stare at, my own mortality, which felt disturbingly imminent, my view of planning for that was fundamentally different.
The details of our estate planning are not material to this discussion, merely that it was necessary to reexamine. Keeping in mind my disclaimer above, here are some key things I would think about when you are thinking about estate planning in the midst of a terminal diagnosis:
- Leading up to death, there are a lot of medical interventions going on. Advance Directives, called different things in different places, can help others around you know what you want. While assigning someone the responsibility of carrying out your wishes does not require a conversation, that's usually a really good idea.
- I've not seen any documents that would direct what to do with your body after you die, but that's a good discussion to have with someone you trust. Burial, cremation, etc., whatever you want, it can get complicated. If you just know some of the details, then tell someone or write it down. When my grandfather died, he had everything arranged, all of the details of the funeral too so that my grandmother only needed to show up. This, to me, is an expression of love for the family you leave behind and it had a profound effect on me.
- Your Will directs your Executor/Executrix what to do with your physical stuff, property, and can provide your wishes for a guardian for any minor children. Wills are usually pretty simple because life changes so much, so make sure you remember to write down which stuff goes to which relative.
- A Trust is a document that can be extremely detailed or very broad. My husband and I each set up a trust to hold the life insurance funds because our children are minors. We want the funds we bequeath to be used for our children's benefit alone. This document has some tax implications too, so it's best to see a lawyer who has some expertise in the matter.
End of life planning
Wherever you are in your life, however long you've been living with MBC, having documents in place to carry out your wishes after you die is extremely important. Family traditions, heirlooms, stories only you know. These are valuable and when you have the ability to provide direction, that is your opportunity to pass on what is important to you. Take the opportunity.
Advanced breast cancer is an isolating and lonely disease.