Mortality: An ounce of preparedness

As I write these words, it has been only a few days since the recent earthquake. By the time you read these words in the Senior Voice, though, it will probably be at least a month out, and most people will have forgotten about it.

I don’t want to forget.

Earthquake preparedness is a good thing. When something like this happens in a third world country, thousands of people can perish. We didn’t lose a soul. I’m convinced that part of that is the mercy of a loving God on our undeserving souls, but part of it is that we plan for the possibility of a major quake.

And we do this even though it is unpleasant to think about. In 1964 our state was devastated. Personally, I would just as soon forget all that and pretend it will never happen again. Unfortunately, my refusal to acknowledge the possibility has zero impact on whether it happens.

Somebody once said, “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst”. The poet A. E. Housman said it better:

Therefore, though the world has still

Much good, but much less good than ill

And while the sun and moon endure

Luck’s a chance, but trouble’s sure

I’d face it as a wise man would

And train for ill, and not for good.

This column isn’t about earthquake preparedness, though, because there are a lot of people far more qualified than I to write about that. I want to talk about preparing for some other circumstances that we would, most of us, rather not think about.

Death, for one, is hard to think about, even for those of us who are believers. But it is the one thing we know will, eventually, happen to all of us. And it may not happen when, or how, we expect it. It may come out of the blue, and it may look like a car sliding toward us. Or a rupture in a blood vessel. Or a bullet. In other words, you may not have time to prepare when you are looking death in the face.

To prepare for death, at a minimum you need a will. If you only have a will, and nothing else, your estate will probably have to go through probate. That’s not ideal, but probate is a lot worse without a will than with one. Wills are relatively inexpensive, so there is really no good excuse for not having one.

To go a step further, you may want a living trust, which would avoid probate. Not everyone needs a trust, though. Depending on your situation, you may be able to get by just fine with a will and a transfer-on-death deed, and some beneficiary designations on your accounts, life insurance and IRAs.

Then there’s incapacity. Not everyone becomes incompetent, but sometimes it happens. It can be a stroke, a brain injury, dementia or some other serious medical condition. And it can be a real mess. But it doesn’t have to be. You can soften the blow on your loved ones (and yourself) with a few simple documents.

First, you should have a durable power of attorney. This allows someone you choose to handle your finances on your behalf, if you lose your competence. If you don’t have one, a judge will decide who is in charge of your financial life. I give due respect to judges, but the judge doesn’t know the people around you from Adam. You know who would handle that well, the judge doesn’t. It’s your life. You should choose.

Second, you need an Advance Health Care Directive. This is for medical decision making, if you can’t do that yourself. You name someone to make those decisions for you, and then you can make some of the more difficult decisions in advance. You can decide, among other things, under what circumstances they should remove the feeding tube, or stop medical treatments if you are in a coma, or put you on “comfort care only” if you are terminal.

These medical decisions are hard to make for a lot of people, but they’re even harder to make for someone else. I had a client once who had to make the difficult decision whether to end life support for his mother. It was a hard call to make, but even worse, if he told them to terminate support, his brother was going to say “how could you murder mom?” but if he told them to continue it, his sister would say “how could you torture mom?” He was in a no-win situation.

There are a number of different Advance Health Care Directive forms out there. Providence has their version, Alaska Regional uses the Five Wishes document. There is an optional statutory version available, but it has some problems. I have a “cleaned up” version available for free on my website, KirkAlaska .com, which you can print out if you don’t like the other versions.

Finally there is the possibility of winding up in a nursing home or other assisted care. The cost of care is outrageously high in Alaska. A bed in a skilled nursing facility in Anchorage can run to $22,000 a month. Yes, that’s for one person. That could quickly deplete everything you worked and saved for all your life.

Medicaid planning is difficult and complicated, but there are options. For example, an irrevocable trust can protect assets from the cost of long-term care. For a married couple, a safe harbor trust can be a low-risk way to protect the assets for your spouse, and pass them along to your heirs on death.

Some of the things you can do are basic, others are for specific situations and not for everybody. But if you don’t have what you need, you should get on the stick. Follow the Boy Scout motto and Be Prepared!

Kenneth Kirk is an Anchorage estate planning lawyer. Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice for a specific situation; for specific advice you should consult a professional who can take all the facts into account. Now get on it!