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No time like the present: End-of-life plans and the pandemic

FILE - In this Dec. 14, 2019, file photo, people walk among headstones with holiday wreaths in Arlington National Cemetery during Wreaths Across America Day in Arlington, Va. Coronavirus has more people addressing their end-of-life planning. And for those who haven't, its a great time to take it on. (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 14, 2019, file photo, people walk among headstones with holiday wreaths in Arlington National Cemetery during Wreaths Across America Day in Arlington, Va. Coronavirus has more people addressing their end-of-life planning. And for those who haven't, its a great time to take it on. (AP Photo/Sait Serkan Gurbuz, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Coronavirus has more people addressing their end-of-life planning. And for those who haven't, it’s a great time to take it on.

People are traditionally rather hesitant to take the steps that experts suggest — creating an advance directive, writing a will and more — in part because they don’t want to ponder their own mortality. But the coronavirus pandemic has sharpened awareness and focused concern on this front. Several estate attorneys, online legal service providers and life insurers say they’ve seen an uptick in interest since the coronavirus hit.

Consider the advice of Jenni Neahring, a kidney specialist and palliative care doctor at St. Charles Hospital in Bend, Oregon who works daily with patients with chronic and serious illnesses. She says it’s better to make these decisions before an emergency to avoid putting extra stress and urgency on loved ones if something should happen.

If a patient is unconscious, health care professionals must spend critical time hunting down relatives or friends to help determine their preferred next steps.

Things have gotten harder with COVID-19, Neahring said, as no one is allowed in the hospitals with these patients and those on ventilators cannot speak for themselves.

“It has brought into sharp relief how necessary these conversations are and how much worse it is to have to do them at the end,” she said.

Here are a few things you can do now to help you and your loved ones later:

POINT PEOPLE

Start with picking your point people: who will make medical decisions for you if you cannot speak for yourself? This person is known as the health care proxy. They will be named in a legal document known as the durable power of attorney for health care.

Then choose someone who can oversee your financial affairs, such as paying your mortgage or other bills, if you are incapacitated. This person would be given financial power of attorney. It doesn't have to be the same person as your health care proxy.

Choose someone you know well and trust for these roles. Pick a backup as well, in case your first choice is unavailable.

WRITE IT DOWN

After you’ve addressed the health care and financial representatives, consider writing a living will, or “advanced directive." An advanced directive says exactly what medical care you do and do not want. Each state has its own advanced directive form; they can be found at the Medicare website.

If you are having trouble getting started, check out online resources such as The Conversation Project, Prepare for your Care or AARP’s website.

Consider writing a will to let people know what to do with your assets after you die and who you choose to be guardian of any children. Without a will, it won’t be up to you who raises your kids and your estate could end up in probate, potentially causing more headaches and costs for those you leave behind.

“The takeaway is while this is a current need, it’s always a need,” said Chas Rampenthal, general counsel at LegalZoom.

Many people look at end of life planning, including wills, estates and trusts, as an issue for the wealthy, but that's untrue, Rampenthal said.

“It’s not about how much you have, it’s about making your wishes known,” he said.

And while life insurance isn’t always considered part of end of life planning, it can be an important step to protect your family financially. Term life insurance, a policy in place for a certain period of time, works best for most families, versus whole life, which is much more expensive and complex.

“This is just prompting people to eat their vitamins and do something they should be doing anyway,” said Peter Colis, cofounder and CEO of Ethos, an online life insurance company.

GETTING HELP

It's not a great time to meet with people in person. But estate attorney Matthew D’Emilio said that most lawyers are able to arrange phone, video or other consultations during the pandemic. Many states have provided alternatives for witnessing and signing documents to cope with the social distancing rules.

If the idea or cost of seeing an attorney is too daunting, there are many online options for legal documents, some of which provide direct consultation.

SHARE YOUR WISHES

Let your friends and family know what you want, who is in charge and what documents you have. Provide a copy of critical paperwork to your loved ones. Share an advanced directive with your physician as well.

Neahring suggests keeping the name and number of your medical decision maker in your wallet for emergencies.

And while most details will be addressed in the legal documents, some experts suggest writing a short letter reiterating your preferences and reasoning to help provide clarity and comfort to your loved ones later on.