"I spend a lot of my time saying, 'no, that's not true — here's how it actually works.'"
Editor’s note — This article is the first in a series concerning what people can do to prepare themselves for end of life.
No one likes to talk about it, but it happens to everyone — death.
Since you can not predict when you will die, it is wise to prepare what you can in advance so that your family is protected and will not have to speculate about what you would have wanted.
Because of social taboos about discussing death, misconceptions about the legalities surrounding wills and inheritances can flourish.
"I spend a lot of my time saying, 'no, that's not true — here's how it actually works,'" said Jeffrey Houston, an attorney at Wise & Reber.
According to the National Institute of Health the end of life and how people die has changed a lot in the past century. A large part of those changes are due to advances in public health, medicine, and health care. Most Americans no longer die suddenly from injury or infection and often rely on healthcare providers to anticipate their time left. As a result people wait until the last minute to deal with the legalities.
Dealing with the legal issues surrounding death varies for those at different life stages.
"Different people have different concerns," Houston said. "Some are worried about raising a family, some are worried about continuing a business."
At any age, an adult should have a declaration and powers of attorney in place.
Having a power of attorney set up to authorize someone to make decisions should you become incapacitated is prudent. You can even assign different people to take on your healthcare and financial issues. Those tasks do not necessarily have to be assigned to the oldest child in a family.
"It has nothing to do with birth order. It has nothing to do with educational level, either," Houston said.
A power of attorney should only be given to someone you trust.
"You've got to be careful," Houston said. "Just because your neighbor is nice, you don't give them a power of attorney."
If no one is available to take on the power of attorney for a person, the court can be petitioned for a guardian to make healthcare decisions and a conservator to oversee financial matters.
Signing a declaration — which is also known as a living will — documents your wishes to your family regarding life support should you have an incurable and terminal disease, injury or illness.
"It's a rough time, removing somebody you love from life support, but you know it's what they wanted," Houston said.
It is important for parents to have an estate plan set up with a will to determine who takes care of their children — and their money — in the event of the death of both parents. Considerations for children with special needs should be put in place.
For empty nesters, creating a trust may be a good option.
"People are worried about the efficient handling of what they've worked their whole lives to create," Houston said.
Creating a trust also allows a successor trustee to take over for while a person while they are still alive to assist them with tasks such as paying bills.
An individual has a lot of control over how their assets are distributed after their death.
"You can disinherit adult kids. They don't have a right to inherit," Houston said. "The only ones that have a right to inherit, if you will, are a spouse and minor children."
With the correct legal language in your will, you can write a signed and dated list describing specific items to be given to designated people at any time.
"It's as effective as if I'd written it in the will," Houston said. "If they make you mad at Thanksgiving, you don't have to call the lawyer, you change the list. It's all up to you."
While money is easily divided, material things are much more difficult to distribute to everyone's satisfaction, and having your wishes written down takes the stress of those decisions off of those who are grieving.
"If all the lawyers have to fight over spoons, families get ruptured and I would really like to avoid that," Houston said.
Besides declaring family or friends as beneficiaries, you can also direct donations to organizations such as charities, churches or colleges.
"One that's very popular anymore — and it has been for the last 15 years or so — is the community foundation," Houston noted.
If you die without a will or trust in place, your estate is given to the nearest relation as determined by state law.
"They actually go out six degrees of relationship," Houston said. "I've never had it go back to the state."
Legal documents should be reviewed every few years. As time passes, you may need to change who the beneficiaries of your estate will be or who is assigned custody of your children in case of your death.
"Life will change on you faster than you think," Houston said.
Consulting with your attorney to determine if there have been any changes in tax laws that will affect your estate plan is also recommended.
Keep legal documents and other important paperwork organized and accessible — including contact information for family members, a list of bank accounts, tax returns from recent years, property deeds and vehicle titles.
If you have a safety deposit box, having a second person on signature card makes it easier for items stored there to be accessed after your death.
When looking for someone to handle your legal documents, it is best to work with a lawyer who has experience in estate planning.
"The lawyer who dealt with your traffic ticket or your divorce may not be the one who needs to do your estate planning," Houston said.
Though there are online resources for estate planning, you should be cautious about using them.
"The trouble is you don't know what you don't know," Houston said. "I won't tell you it can't work. I'll tell you I make a lot of money when you do your own legal work."