I have decided to defer the topic of asset protection and preservation until December’s column.

I want to focus in November (the month of giving thanks and being thankful), on legally preparing for life’s curveballs, which can come at any time.

Recently, my family lost a member to cancer. The time period from diagnosis to death was not long and caught many of us by surprise. At his funeral, the priest asked us this: Do we have our spiritual baggage packed and ready to move into heaven?

This made me think of another question: Who among us has our legal affairs in order so that our families do not have the extra burden of visiting lawyers or courts when they should be focusing on the family in a time of crisis? Unfortunately, too often I see people during such a time of crisis, as do others in my area of practice.

I do not know why people do not prepare for their possible incapacity and their inevitable death, but I can venture a few guesses.

Perhaps it’s just not a fun thing to think about or it’s perceived as being too expensive, and some feel that it won’t be their problem since they will be gone—or at least not lucid (I have actually heard this one on several occasions).

I can also tell you that as some people get older and start having symptoms of dementia, they can become paranoid and therefore no longer trust their loved ones to assist them with decision-making, so this becomes a problem as well.

Another issue is that some people do not have loved ones to assist them so they do not know where to turn.

For these individuals, professionals such as myself and my colleagues can step into the roles of fiduciaries and administrators for estates, as we do when family members do not trust one another in these capacities.

I encourage my clients who do see me for estate planning to go over their estate plans with their family members who may have roles in the execution of the estate or may be named as agents on
a durable general power of attorney or advance medical directive during any type of incapacity.

Some choose to put together a formal book or binder that may include all legal documents, insurance policies, banking and investment information, retirement plan information and funeral plans.

Another important thing to have ready is passwords. We live in a digital age, and many of us do our banking and bill paying on the computer. If someone needs to step in to pay your bills, it is much easier if they have your passwords. Of course, this should be someone you trust with your finances, and usually it is the person or persons you have named in your POA.

There is a misconception that funeral arrangements are part of your estate plan, but usually by the time the will or trust is read or found, the funeral has already occurred.

I advise my clients to prepay and preplan their funerals. Not only do you make life easier on your family, you can lock in at today’s prices. Prepaid arrangements can be for cremation or burial, including a funeral or scattering of ashes if cremation is chosen. Your wishes will be known, and there will be no second-guessing on the part of your family members.

Again, this is not a fun topic to discuss with your loved ones; I understand that. However, planning can make their lives much easier, so that they can focus on you in your time of need.

Be thankful this Thanksgiving for those you love, and tell them you love them, because we never know what the next day may bring.

Elizabeth McMaster is an elder-law attorney in Fredericksburg. Email her at