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Making your wishes known

If thinking about making a will sounds scary, think how scary it can be for your family if you die without one.

If you die without a will, a term called “intestate,” someone else will make decisions about everything you own. Dying without a will can also jeopardize the financial security of your dependants.

And long before death seems imminent, people need to understand and make arrangements for different kinds of medical powers of attorney, as well as a “living will.” Advocates for planning ahead believe if these decisions are made when people are healthy, the results will be better for everyone involved.

Here’s a look at some of the choices:

Living wills

Linda Simpson helped her father, mother and mother-in-law in their last years of life. Her father, who was a lawyer, never filled out a living will.

“With Mother,” Simpson said, “I insisted.”

Simpson said without a living will, families struggle to know what kind of medical measures people want at the end of life.

“This is a gift to your children,” she said.

Caring for her parents and mother-in-law, Simpson went to the hospital with them many times. She crossed paths with other families caring for loved ones. “It was nice when you can hear a family member say, ’I know this is what mother wants.’ ”

Without a clear directive, caregivers find themselves in a deep conflict, she said. “You have been working so hard to keep them alive. You feel like you are signing a death warrant unless you have this written down,” Simpson said.

In a living will, she said, “You can be very specific. You can say, ‘if this procedure will help me get better, I want it. If it only prolongs life, I don’t.’ ”

She said it is much better if people spell out what they want before they are faced with life prolonging measures like a ventilator or a feeding tube.

“It’s all the more important to have this in writing for someone who cannot speak for himself or herself,” she said. Before mini-strokes or Alzheimer’s disease robs someone of the ability to think or speak, the instructions should be written down, she said.

Simpson said she has already written a living will for herself. She said someone presented a program on the subject at her church. “It takes about 10 minutes,” she said.

Wills

Montgomery lawyer Gordon Billheimer said many people have a superstitious feeling about making a will. “If I do a will, I’m going to die,” Billheimer said he has heard people say.

Many people also think that only the wealthy need wills. “People will say, ‘I don’t own enough to bother with a will.’ But more often than not, I’ve seen poor people trying to save money, who have a screwed up mess.”

Billheimer has handled many wills in his long career. But for years, he worked at settling an estate for a person who owned a good deal of property and failed to leave a will.

In 1982, Julia Montgomery Carpenter died without a will. Her husband died before her, and they had no children. At the time of her death, she had 60 to 70 relatives. She owned many houses and pieces of property in Montgomery. As time passed, she had more relatives, and the property she owned deteriorated in value. The deteriorated property became a problem for the town.

Billheimer worked years to settle the case. “This was the worst case I ever saw.”

After making an appointment with a lawyer, Billheimer advised, “Bring in everything you’ve got. You can have too little. But you can never have too much” of the records you need.

That means all the papers that explain what your assets are. People who think they might save money by not telling a lawyer about something they own are mistaken. If an item is omitted from a will, it can actually cost money later to get it settled.

Billheimer also said “the modern problem of two marriages” can create problems, if people do not make their wills accordingly.

He said, “People have a tendency to make a will that leaves everything to their spouses. But if there are children from the first marriage, you may be leaving those children out.”

Another problem crops up when people have joint bank accounts with adult children, he said.

“Many people get joint bank accounts so that the child will be able to pay the bills, if they become incapacitated. But when the person dies, that child gets all the money from the account. That may not be what the person who set up the account intended,” he said.

Powers of attorney

In the book she co-authored with David Caruso, Dee Lee has a whole section called “The Powers That Be.” That header explains that there are several powers to reckon with. Those include “limited power of attorney, springing power of attorney, general power of attorney and durable power of attorney.”

There is also medical power of attorney.

In her book “Let’s Talk Money,” Lee explains that limited power of attorney means a person can grant authority to act on your behalf in specific situations or for limited time periods.

A springing power of attorney, Lee writes, means the “authority ‘springs’ into being only if and when you become disabled.”

“General power of attorney grants authority to conduct all affairs on your behalf, but ceases if you should become incapacitated if it does not have a ‘durable’ provision.”

The durable power of attorney “grants authority that remains effective even if you should become disabled or incapacitated and provides assurances that you have assistance when you most need it.”

At the Health Information Center at the Charleston Area Medical Center Institute, a whole library of information awaits people who want to find out about “medical power of attorney.”

Beverly Withrow, a registered nurse and an education specialist for the center, said a “medical power of attorney is the person you identify to carry out your wishes for how you want to be cared for in a medical situation.”

The federal government mandates that hospitals make this information available to all patients. Withrow said when people come to the hospital and receive the packet, they might immediately say to themselves: “They think something bad is going to happen to me.”

Although the hospital gives packets to everyone, a patient does not have to fill it all out before being admitted.

“The best thing to do is to think about this before some event happens and before you have surgery hanging over your head. That way you are not pressured into it.

“Take the packet with you and discuss it with your family. Even young couples should do this. No one ever knows when the need might arise. It’s a hard subject for families to talk about. But there is less guilt and less pressure, if it is done ahead of time.

“Those are the people who can say, ‘I talked to Mom, and I know exactly what she wants done.’ ”

Withrow and others on staff can also help people decide about “advanced medical directives. These include a living will. This helps you to understand what kind of care you might or might not want.”

At the center, Withrow said they have books and videos to loan.

“We can sit down and talk to people. We like to give them the forms and then suggest they take them home and bring your questions back. We can then do the signing later.”

Withrow also said they have a toll free number, 888-HEALTHY, and a local number, 388-9645.

To contact staff writer Susan Williams, use e-mail or call 348-5112.


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