Where there’s a will… Dipping our toes into estate planning & advance directives

I want to blame Hollywood for this annoying and persistent idea that a will has instantaneous validity the moment someone dies. You know the scenario. A woman lays in her bed at the edge of death. She cries out for a pen, and with her last bit of strength scribbles out that she wants to cut her husband out of the will and leave all her money and funeral decisions to her daughter. She gasps, and the death rattle makes it last shake. The pen drops. The end. Her daughter, crestfallen, has their lawyer certify the will as a legal document and then she proceeds to take it into the funeral home. She presents it to the director explaining that yes her mom is legally married, but that she didn’t want her husband to take care of her funeral because he would choose the cheapest option and not honor her wishes. The funeral director looks at the will and sees that everything is sworn, notarized and it its right place, and then slides it back to the daughter. The will is no good. That’s right, the will is no good.

Wait! What?! How?!

Well, I’m glad you asked. There is a long and a short answer but my goal is to be less wordy rather than my usual looooong winded ramblings. So here it goes…

Yes, a will is a real and valid document. And, the one that was presented to the funeral director in the above scenario — *cough cough cough me— was indeed perfect in every way. So why couldn’t I take it? Well, in the state of California, a will is not an immediately acceptable legal form that allows for the right to assign control of disposition. In other words? You can use a will to name someone other than your next of kin to make the legal decisions for your funeral, but you have to go to court and have a judge approve this. Now,  let me be clear in saying that a will is not completely pointless. If you want to make sure that your granddaughter gets that gorgeous lamp she has been eyeing since she was a little girl, your will is a great place to make that happen. Want to make sure your favorite child gets your house? Leave it in a will! Moral of the story? The will is great for any and all assets, but not so great for the funeral because the execution of a will takes time.

Ok, so what is the alternative? It’s the California Advance Health Care Directive!  This handy little form allows you to designate an agent to not only be in charge of your health care wishes should you be unable to make them yourself, but also allows your agent to be in charge of carrying out your funeral wishes. You may be asking why all of this is so important, and there are a couple different ways for me to answer. Let’s use myself as an example. I am not married, have no children, my parents are alive, and I have two brothers. As it stands my parents are my legal next of kin. Now, my parents and I have our differences but I trust them to make the best decision, which will inevitably be the cheapest one, and that’s ok with me. If my parents die, then a funeral director will have to get both of my brothers to sign my paperwork and good luck finding one of them! This means that my body will be sitting  in a cooler for at least seven to ten days while I assume Caitlin-my mortician mate-tries to find my baby brother. While this does not hurt me, as I will be dead and gone, it does hurt my brother Bryan, and I would feel terrible putting him through that. It would also make things uncomfortable for my partner, since as it stands, he has zero legal right to lay me to rest. I can solve all of this right now by filling out three pieces of paper. Yes, weeks of agony for my loved ones can be solve by three pieces of paper.

Here’s the thing. This may all read silly and dramatic- although I hope it doesn’t-but everything I choose to commit to “paper” and send out into the world comes from real world experience and I feel an ethical responsibility to do whatever I can to alleviate the suffering I have seen from these scenarios. I know that if I can repeat this information over and over in various forms that I can help keep future families from feeling an added amount of pain, anger, and confusion.

PSSSSSSSSSST! Want to fill out a California Advance Health Care Directive? Well click here to be taken to the California Hospital Association where you can download one today. Don’t forget to send copies of it to the person that you designate your agent! You can even take it a step further by giving one to the funeral home of your choice to keep on file for you.

If you are reading this an you have more questions I am happy to help answer and any and all of them. You can reach me by visiting my funeral home, Undertaking LA and going to the contact page, or simply messaging me directly amber@undertakingla.com.