Full disclosure: I started writing and researching this piece well over a month ago, before Covid-19 had taken hold. At the time, it seemed like a good idea to shelve any talk of end-of-life decisions. Now, in a world where so much seems out of our control, it seems appropriate to talk about the things we can prepare for.
One of the things we really don’t like to talk about in this vibrant, lively Valley (in this country, really) is the end of our lives. Because of that, so many of us who are prepared for any kind of outdoor activity in any kind of weather, are woefully unprepared for the one adventure we are all destined to go on from the time we are born.
About two months ago I got a phone call that reminded me of that fact. One of my dearest friends had a massive stroke, was in surgery and they weren’t sure he was going to make it. So many things happened all at once for me — the thought that he was one of the healthiest people I know, that he had gone climbing and snowboarding the day before the stroke and, one fact that sat heaviest, that he was a year younger than I am. And, in the next few days, I made another discovery — he had no will, living or otherwise, in place.
In the weeks that followed, and my friend started his recovery, I started my research on end of life options and living wills, of last wills and testaments, Colorado being a right-to-die state, and what you can do to relieve your loved ones of the burden of decision making in the event of your death or a debilitating accident.
I have personally had a will since I got married 14 years ago, and updated it when I divorced five years ago. It is a simple enough process, and there are several options available. All you need for your will to be legal is two witnesses to you signing it — though in most states, they must be people not named in the will itself. And yet so many people that I spoke to about wills said the same thing: “I’ve been meaning to do that. I should really get that done.”
Yes. Yes you should. You can make your intentions clear to those around you in as many conversations as you like — everything from designating a god-parent for your child to what you want done with your remains. But unless you have the details in writing, you legally designate the state to oversee your estate, from who your heirs will be, to who will be executor.
Let’s start before the ending. Living wills are documents that tell people what you want done in case of medical situations that render you unconscious or unable to communicate your wishes. According to the Colorado Bar Association, a living will “covers the administration, withholding, or withdrawal of life-sustaining procedures when you have a terminal condition and are unconscious or otherwise incompetent.” While it does not serve as a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order, it can outline how you feel about certain medical procedures being performed.
Do you want to be on feeding tubes? How do you feel about respirators to keep you breathing? Do you want to donate your organs after you die? The Five Wishes form is a popular document for this purpose, and is being offered free during the COVID-19 crisis — visit fivewishes.org/five-wishes-covid-19 to download a copy.
A more straightforward option is having someone designated with your Medical Power of Attorney (MPA). Someone whom you trust who knows all your medical wishes would act as your, well, living living will. The risks involved with this include not being able to reach this person in times of medical crisis, or the unfortunate scenario where they are also incapacitated.
For the record, if you have a living will and an MPA, your MPA will be overridden in a crisis. This can be good (think, your MPA having a change of heart about a procedure you don’t want done for personal/emotional reasons) and also bad (think your MPA knows your most recent wishes, which differ from your living will that you have not had an opportunity to update). It comes down to a personal choice, once you know what your options are.
Advanced directives are made up of several documents – your living will, DNR, medical power of attorney, and any information you may want doctors to have about previous medical conditions. It’s the most comprehensive way to cover all potential scenarios. And while it can be hard to think about these things, it will take the decision off the shoulders of your loved ones.
A last will and testament
This is the document that gets down to the nitty gritty.
A will can cover a wide variety of wishes, and should: what you want done with your remains, who you want to be your child’s guardian(s), who will inherit your assets, who will care for your pets…the list goes on and on. It is important to understand the legal ramifications of your decisions, and is therefore advisable to involve an attorney if you have large assets with many disbursements. You’ll especially need to get some legal advice if you still owe money on a house or car you’d like to leave to an heir.
One of the first and most important things your will should name should be the executor (see above). The executor of your will will make sure your wishes are followed in the event of your death. This can be a close friend or family member, or trusted advisor. They can be named in the will, as it does not create any legal conflict — they are simply following through on the things you have outlined.
In Colorado, while having your living will, medical power of attorney, do not resuscitate order, and last will and testaments notarized is highly recommended, it is not necessary to make them legal. All you need is two people willing to witness you signing the documents, who are willing to sign as well and who are not related to you or named in your will. Templates of the documents are readily available online, and more advanced documents can be purchased for relatively small fees — it is no longer something that requires a lawyer unless, as stated, you have a complicated financial situation.
Personally, I have a dear friend as executor, my dog is accounted for, several sentimental items are distributed among friends and family, and remaining assets not used to pay off any final debts are given to family and friends. Simple, to the point, and I printed the form myself and had it witnessed by co-workers.
The sense of relief when I handled these things was pretty powerful — knowing that I’d relieved my loved ones of the stress of figuring everything out for me after I’m gone. And in a time when nothing seems certain, I am comforted to know that this, at least, is in my power to control.
According to NOLO, the online legal library, if you die without a will in Colorado, your property will be distributed to your closest relatives, beginning with your spouse and children. If you have neither a spouse nor children, your grandchildren or your parents will get your property. This list continues with increasingly distant relatives, including siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews. If the court exhausts this list to find that you have no living relatives by blood or marriage, the state will take your property.