The 10-Step Plan to Avoid a Bad Death

Engaging in this plan helps you save money, minimize family upset, and make sure the things and people are there when you need them!


Many of us have witnessed Bad Deaths. Whether they be of another family member, friend, acquaintance or a beloved celebrity, we have seen those who have suffered:

  • The insult of invasive surgery or other medical intervention past the time to simply let go; or
  • Insufficient funds because of financial wrongdoing by others who strip away hard-earned and much needed assets; or
  • Intense family discord separating siblings, and all too often ending up in court – or worse!


I see the threats of Bad Deaths continually in my professional practice. Working as a trustee and power of attorney, I am frequently hired in the midst of suffering to bring impartial and compassionate technical expertise to clean up the mess. The immediate cause is often a trustee or power holder who is not doing a good job – not doing a good job technically either because of ignorance or greed, or not doing a good job with the more difficult task of family engagement.


And messy it is!  The cost financially is typically large, draining nest-egg savings and the cost in family harmony and not having a death-in-bed as desired cannot be repaired.


All the chaos and expense is all the more tragic because much of it is avoidable.


Our society has a long way to go in death preparedness.


If you’re interested in avoiding a Bad Death, then you need to be prepared to go against the trend and instead journey on the path to a better way for yourself, for your friends and for your family.


And it’s not an easy path. Not only is it counter-cultural, but it’s also contrary to what you’ve likely been doing so far in life. And so the gap for each of us gets wider every day — given that the body of human knowledge grows larger every day, and that our choices are colored by not having sufficient information. Perhaps a bit like taking up dance in later years with no prior experience or training, just thinking about it is uncomfortable.


The good news is that, like learning to dance, more is more. Being able to move at all to the beat of a favorite song is better than nothing, and similarly, just deciding to walk on the path of preparedness is part of the answer.


So here are the core ten items to gain preparedness to avoid a Bad Death for yourself, for your friends and family:

  1. Get some clarity on what you need and want. I say “some” clarity, because even if you’re clear or passionate about some of the parts of the plan, you may not have it all down, if only because you don’t know what you don’t know yet – but you will. You’ll find out a lot while dancing down the path. Want to do some research, here is a great book, though directed for those of high net worth, it has applicable insights for everyone. Also, the Five Wishes Workbook covers many issues.


  1. Have some conversations. Start talking with family, friends and your professionals about what you’re thinking. Find out what they’re doing. Share with them your preferences. Don’t know how to start? Check out the resources such as Death over Dinner or Death Café.


  1. Get your documents done. There are several sets of papers – or computer files to complete. But the good news is, as long as you’re able, you can change them later – change them because you’ve changed your mind, or because life and the world have changed. And if you don’t live to change them, you’re lucky to have them. Something is better than nothing.


First, these are the legal documents: will, trust, and powers of attorney. They’re the structure, like a skeleton, for everything else. Working on them with a good estate planning attorney will even help you get more clarity, and find out some of those things you don’t know about yet. If you’re like most people, the easier part is to decide what goes to whom upon your death, but the harder is thinking about what you need to get through an extended disability. The great estate planners will help you insert your goals, values and wishes for your beneficiaries in your documents.


One challenging part is who you name to handle the various tasks for you when you can’t. Who you name can be as important as what their tasks are.  After all, in a way, they’ll be serving as the President of the United States of You! Don’t you think it makes some difference who the President is?


Reasonable people can differ on what qualifications are most important for President, and they do for trustee. You may also wish to consider the impact of your choice on those others you leave behind — and then how to set your candidate up for success with his or her new constituency. And even how to prepare your beneficiaries, such as discussed in this book and this article.


The set of qualifications depends on the tasks you require. Typical qualities include: trust, expertise, available time, proximity, fees. There’s been a lot written on this subject, too. Here are my thoughts.


Besides the legal documents there are expressions of your wishes, values and legacy, sometimes called the ethical will. This can be important for you as well as for your family. There are various resources for this – including the Five Wishes and The Wonderful Workbooks created by Eric Weiner. Or you can just open a blank page and start typing.


There are a separate set of documents to organize what you want to happen to your body after your death. Go talk to your funeral pre-needs specialist to get the documents done, not only to secure your final resting place (e.g, grave site), but also just as important, how it gets there, including transportation and any funeral arrangements. I know first-hand what a heavy burden you’d be lifting from those who survive you by your thoughtfully taking care of these inescapable tasks and in so doing, relieving them of having to handle them!


And one more set: depending on your health, there can be some advanced medical documents which you should discuss with your health care team, particularly the POLST form and generally, care and life plans.


Finally, there’s an issue of where to store these and how to get them to the right people in advance of need. The documents don’t do any good unless they can be accessed and used. Lots of options to discuss with your team!


  1. Have some more conversations. Surprises at the time of need rarely go well – and that’s the time when you’re unable to talk or do anything about it!  By having the conversation, you’re working to reset expectations. You may receive some helpful feedback, such as that none of your kids want the china or the silver, or that Junior isn’t a good choice to succeed you as President. A wealthy client on his death bed shared for the first time with his struggling divorced daughter that he was favoring his recent wife, who had no other means of support, and so wasn’t leaving his daughter any money. The added emotion of this made it all the more difficult for the everyone to move on.


  1. Cultivate your financial assets. If you’re like most of us there’s a real question of whether you’ll have enough money to take care of yourself. The cost of care is accelerating and is likely to continue. The second-best time for acting strategically is now! Financial advisors have increasingly sophisticated software to help you better anticipate that portion of your future expenses that can be predicted, and their experienced advice can be invaluable.


Consider also expanding your insurance protection, if you’re fortunate enough to be insurable. I have yet to hear a family complain that there was too much long-term care, disability or life insurance.


  1. Have even more conversations. With greater financial clarity, you can have a more informed conversation on what, if anything, others can expect from your estate. They may be relieved to see first-hand that your financial needs are being met into the future. And also, if and when you may need to look for help from them or others. Of course, be guarded about making any disclosures if the other person is incapable or untrustworthy. Don’t abandon common sense on your journey to avoid a Bad Death!


  1. Prepare your health team. Besides the health team members you already know about, know that much suffering is caused by not bringing in care managers and care advocates. Different from caregivers who do the physical work, these professionals quarterback the array of doctors and facilities, caregivers, pills and procedures.  They also deal with insurance and the family. I’m always recommending care managers to those who are in the planning phase, and I hire them directly when the client is incapacitated. Their professional ethic is to be available 24/7 as needed. Don’t assume that your family or friends will have the time, ability or inclination to step in during emergencies and for ongoing needs. Better to bring care managers in advance: they can conduct an initial assessment, get familiar with you, your preferences and values, and your condition and doctors.


You can deploy care managers as deputies of the Power of Attorney for Health Care, appropriate especially where a family member is wearing that hat. Or, out of preference or efficiency, you can appoint your care manager as Power of Attorney.


  1. Prepare those who will sign checks and act for you.  It’s hard for many of us to imagine what our power of attorney for property or successor trustee does for us while we’re alive but not firing on all cylinders. Some of the tasks simply pick up where we leave off: paying the rent and groceries, for example, as long as we keep living where we are. You can help mightily by sharing your bill pay and organization of accounts in advance. Some banks allow the power of attorney and successor trustee to register with them pre-need. Professional bookkeepers (now known as Daily Money Managers) can provide effective, personalized, and cost-efficient help in understanding what you do with what you have now in order to efficiently bridge the work over to when you need help.


In addition to those continuity tasks, a whole new set of tasks can appear that many of us haven’t anticipated. Some of these “black swans” can’t be predicted. But experience has exposed those of us in the front lines to many of them. These run the range of financial and family management issues, and for a couple of examples, include in a medical situation whether to pay for something not covered by insurance, on the one hand, and such emotionally charged issues such as how much detail to provide the rest of the family as well as friends. The lawyer’s minimum on the amount of sharing is often unsatisfactory in these days of instant and constant communications. Having these tasks handled the way you want does not happen magically – a trusted friend or family member won’t know unless you have conversations on your values and wishes on top of a technical understanding of your financial and legal situation, and the legal requirements and implications.


  1. Prepare you and your stuff, especially your property, and any business interests and special assets.  First, there’s your home and the stuff in it.  Is your home livable for the duration? Can it be re-fitted? If a move is in order there are a host of wonderful professionals to assist in downsizing, decluttering, deciding what will fit well in the new, more compact home, and helping through those emotional decisions on how to part with the stuff.


In leaving that stuff, it’s best if you’ve already gotten consensus on who gets what. Failing that, you’re well advised to apportion it out. Third best is having them decide, which often produces friction. The ingenious software, FairSplit, can give the beneficiaries an easier and smoother time of it and also allows you to use without charge its inventory function to list your stuff.


Generally, the more stuff you leave, the bigger the burden on those you leave behind. Collections with or without monetary value are worse. Your biggest gift to your heirs may be your taking care of them in advance.


How to prepare your business and other business interests for after you walk out is a book in itself. Start now. Get professional advice.


  1. Repeat! You can see this preparedness is both a process as well as a set of deliverables. And things change as well – your wants and needs, your family situation and finances, the laws, etc.

You may find also that the conversations and other parts of the process lead to your wanting to  tweak if not radically change some parts of it. In fact, some report that the different mindset accomplished through completing the various documents allows a fresh look. So, it makes sense to revisit, and to continue the conversations. I revisit my documents once a year during my year-end recap and year-ahead planning, as well as when it occurs to me during the year. Some attorneys recommend revisiting documents anywhere between annually and every 5 years.


Engaging in the process may not make your passing any less sad, but it certainly will make it less tragic and expensive. The more you do in advance, the better you’ll be able to avoid a Bad Death.


What step can you take NOW? Talk to a professional.