If you are like most people, you know you need a will but you’re reluctant to think about your death and the emotions that might surface when you talk to your spouse or children about the subject. Or if you have a will, it’s been buried in a safe or closet for several years and is deeply in need of an update. So you procrastinate and leave important decisions unmade.
Most families struggle with matters concerning death and inheritance. It is not easy to deal with the reality of your death, or face the complexities of wills and trusts.
But whether we acknowledge it or not we will all die one day. As Isaiah told King Hezekiah, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Set your house in order, for you are about to die’” (2 Kings 20:1).
And when death comes to us, we aren’t going to take anything with us. “And [Job] said: ‘Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I go back there’” (Job 1:21). You’ve never seen a U-Haul behind a hearse, have you?
Someone else will get our stuff. “…I [Solomon] must leave them [my possessions] to the one who is to come after me. And who knows whether that one will be wise or a fool? Yet that one will take control of all the fruits of my toil and wisdom under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19). All of our possessions become worthless to us the moment we take our last breath.
In light of these Bible verses, if you are a good steward of God’s blessings in life, you should also be a good steward in death. Planning your estate, can be a spiritual exercise as much as a financial and legal exercise.
First priority is to choose a guardian for underage children. While this may be uncomfortable to think about, it is one of the most important decisions you have to make. If you don’t choose a guardian, the courts will do it for you. The judge may choose someone who does not embrace your values or respect how you want your children to be raised.
It is wise to separate the roles of guardian of your children and trustee of your finances. This will help keep the guardian accountable to spend your estate’s finances solely for the benefit of your children.
The second thing to consider is arranging for a Power of Attorney, which is a designated individual who will handle your financial and health affairs if you are incapable of handling them.
A general power of attorney gives broad powers to a person to act in your behalf. A general power of attorney is often included in an estate plan to make sure someone can handle your financial affairs. An Ordinary Power of Attorney is only valid as long as you are capable of acting for yourself. It ends automatically if you become incapacitated or die.
If you are concerned about the potential for becoming mentally incompetent due to illness or accident you can sign a durable power of attorney. The durable Power Of Attorney will stay in effect even if you cannot think, act, or communicate.
A health care power of attorney grants your agent authority to make medical decisions for you if you are unconscious, mentally incompetent, or otherwise unable to make decisions on your own. While not the same thing as a living will, many states allow you to include your preference about being kept on life support.
Please be sure your power of attorney or living will documents come from a Catholic perspective, which states you must receive nutrition and hydration (food and water), even if these are dispensed medically because you are unable to eat or drink normally.
A Catholic Living Will does not require that you have to be kept alive artificially. It just states that nutrition and hydration are required until natural death occurs.
One of the biggest areas of conflict among heirs is items that may have little value if sold to others, but that have enormous sentimental value and importance to surviving family members. To help minimize the potential relational damage among heirs, it can be helpful for you to choose how you wish some of your personal property to be distributed. After making your selections, it can be wise to share your decisions with your heirs.
You will save the attorney’s time—and your money—if you and your spouse (if married) make important decisions before meeting with an attorney. The Estate Planning Worksheet on the Compass Catholic website will help you decide how to distribute your assets, who will serve as the executor of your estate, and other important decisions. Only after you have made these basic decisions should you engage a professional to draw up the documentation.
Estate documents are governed by each state’s laws, and drafting them can be complex. Although you often can complete wills, trusts or Power of Attorney documents online, we recommend that you use a godly attorney who is experienced in estate planning. You don’t know what you don’t know, and a professional can steer you in directions that are specific to you, and your state laws, while the online documents are more generic in nature.
For some people with complicated personal and financial lives, today’s complexities may not be fully addressed with a do-it-yourself service for wills and trusts. While many of us would prefer to fill in the blanks in silence than have to talk to anyone about our doubts or concerns, sometimes it helps—a lot—to get professional advice.
When you are looking for an attorney, ask your parish leaders, your financial advisor and tax preparer, and others you respect to recommend a competent estate attorney with a biblical world view. Interview several to determine the one with whom you are most comfortable.
We recommend reviewing your plan every three to five years—perhaps sooner if you or your family experience significant changes, such as a marriage, a birth, or the death of a family member. Keep in mind that as circumstances change, as tax laws change, and as you learn new information, you will want to review your plan to ensure it is up to date.