In the Victorian era, death was almost fashionable. Funerals were well-attended social events and even rivaled weddings in their splendor and expense. Department stores offered an array of luxury clothing for grieving mothers and widows. Black fabrics were reserved for those in deep mourning. Then shades of gray and mauve were mixed in as one felt able to rejoin society. If death wasn’t celebrated, it was at least taken very seriously.
But then our Victorian cousins were closer to death than we are today. The average person didn’t live to see his 50th birthday, and more than three-quarters of all deaths occurred in children under the age of 5.
Today, people are living longer than ever, and as a consequence, death is considerably less in vogue. Improvements in medical care, diet, and occupational safety have prolonged life, but they have done little to combat the new threats to our existence. The perils of hurricanes, wild fires, and other natural disasters, and the terrors of shootings and random acts of violence, can be sufficient cause to worry about what the future holds.
In times like these, peace of mind comes from taking care to anticipate the things you can. Being prepared for the unexpected means setting aside money for an emergency, having health and life insurance, and even planning for your own disability or death.
This last item can be the most challenging to consider. It means thinking first about what would happen if you couldn’t manage your own finances or health care. Someone should be put in charge of these essential responsibilities under a Durable Power of Attorney and an Advance Health Care Directive.
In times like these, peace of mind comes from taking care to anticipate the things you can.
Armed with these documents, your spouse, partner, or someone else you trust can look out for your best interests if you ever become incapacitated. Without a Power of Attorney, it might be necessary for a loved one to become your legal guardian through a court proceeding. Guardianships usually require letters of certification from two health care professionals who have examined you, as well as different attorneys to represent both you and the person seeking to become your guardian. The process is expensive and time-consuming, but with a Durable Power of Attorney, it can be avoided altogether.
Failing to prepare an Advance Health Care Directive can also lead to unfortunate results. Your next of kin would be authorized to make medical decisions on your behalf, regardless of who this person might be. It could be a spouse, but for a single person, it could be an estranged family member who is suddenly responsible for making life-and-death decisions on your behalf.
Without an Advance Health Care Directive, it’s not uncommon for multiple people to be given this decision-making authority. For example, if your next of kin were a group of siblings, they might argue among themselves as to what sort of medical care you should receive. Some could remember you as a fighter who would want to try every possible treatment before giving up, and others might feel that you should be kept comfortable and not be allowed to suffer.
An even worse outcome can occur when someone fails to prepare a will. It’s tempting to think that the “right people” would inherit when someone dies without a will, or “intestate.” But the rules of intestacy provide only a portion of the estate to a surviving spouse, and nothing at all to an unmarried partner. By preparing a will you can opt out of the default rules of intestate distribution and leave your assets to the people you care about most.
The Victorians knew that funerals were for the living, and they made the most of them. Also for the living are the wills and other documents that provide for the people left behind when someone dies. This legal paperwork will ensure that your loved ones are taken care of if something ever happens to you. It will also give you with the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you’re prepared for whatever the future holds.
Lee Carpenter is an Estates & Trusts attorney at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr LLP and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. This article is intended to provide general information about legal topics and should not be construed as legal advice. For qualified legal counsel contact Lee Carpenter at Lee.Carpenter@saul.com or 410.332.8626.