Key to Stopping Family Fights on End of Life Issues: Be as Specific as Possible

Jackie Bedard
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One of the biggest challenges we have as advisors is making sure our client’s wishes are honored at the end of life issues. While simple on its face, there are two complexities we face in advising families.

First, medical breakthroughs may provide tougher decisions for families to make. For example, will a new drug or procedure be able to extend a loved ones’ life? If so, would they want that? What would be their quality of life?

Second, how do you stop an argument with a sibling in its tracks when they say something like: “Mom would not want that" — or — "Mom would want that!”

The possible misunderstanding of end-of-life issues can cause lifetime rifts among the survivors.

Step 1: Have the talk

The first step is having an open, detailed conversation — usually with family members — about how your clients want to be treated at the end of their lives. If you are not sure where to start, use this article to start the conversation.

If you want something longer, try this recent article from U.S. News & World Report on end of life issues. It’s one of the most important conversations your clients can have, but it also can be one of the hardest. So don’t have this talk over the phone.

This is a conversation that needs to be face-to-face so there is no room for misunderstandings. The person your clients empower as their healthcare advocate will make decisions that affect the quality and type of care later in life, so being on the same page is vital.

There are nuances in the type of care your client might want. For example: Perhaps your client wouldn’t want to be on a ventilator indefinitely but would want one temporarily if he had pneumonia and the ventilator could keep him alive until the medicine got him back on his feet.

What to do in case of strokes, accidents or dementia also need to be discussed, and the earlier the better. Waiting to have these conversations until your client is near the end may very well be too late to have his wishes honored.

Step 2: Get it in writing-the more, the better

At a bare minimum, your client needs a living will. It states his end of life desires. Most lawyers will tell you that's not enough. The living will provides protection, certainty and guidance, but it's also key to have a health care power of attorney. This puts a key person in the driver’s seat of ALL health care decisions, including end of life issues through the living will.

Creating a health care power of attorney solves two issues: 1) any new medical procedure or opportunity can be accepted or rejected by the power holder, and 2) someone your client put in charge has authority to make decisions.

Properly drafted documents

Your client's documents should be prepared by an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney. This is absolutely crucial. Never let clients fall into a sense of false security after buying planning documents churned out by an online will provider or a "trust in a box" kit they bought from an office supply store.

To learn more about common estate planning issues, check out our free guide, Estate Planning Pitfalls: The 12 Most Common Threats to Your Estate & Your Family's Future, or to discuss your estate planning concerns, please call our office at 919-443-3035 or use our contact form.