Family Finance: Don't Postpone Decisions on Wills and Legal Matters That Affect Your Kids

Taking the time to draft some simple legal documents ensures your last wishes are followed and minimizes family strife.

Jennifer Wray
Jennifer Wray

In October 2019, at age 41, I suffered a heart attack and went into cardiac arrest. I was married, a homeowner and a mother to a then-21-month-old. My husband and I intended to complete our wills before our son was born and then it just … never happened, as we were overwhelmed with the responsibilities of full-time jobs and parenthood.

Then came COVID-19. And then my dear mother-in-law, Angie, fell sick with the virus and was hospitalized in December. She was a widow, and when we asked her about her living will or other documents, she said she was “working on it.” Days passed, and as her condition worsened, she agreed to be placed on a ventilator. After that—and through her death in late January—she was unconscious and unable to communicate as my husband, his brother and his aunt tried to figure out next steps, without paperwork or verbal instructions from Angie to guide them.

It’s easy to consider death a faraway speck on the horizon. And for the lucky among us, it will not come for many healthy years. But one of the greatest gifts we can give our loved ones is clear communication about our wishes for what happens after we die.

Contemplating your own mortality is hard, but the following key elements can help you chart a path for the future. Some may require a legal professional’s help, especially if you have complicated finances, but many can be done with low- or no-cost online or fill-in-the-blank documentation.

Health Care Decisions

A living will provides a means to document the care you would want if you were to become permanently unconscious or develop a terminal illness. It covers treatment such as tube feeding, dialysis, comfort care and ventilation. It’s also a place where you can outline preferences regarding tissue or organ donation.

A health care power of attorney designates someone to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to do so. In our case, because Angie did not have a health care POA, that responsibility fell to her closest heirs, my husband and his brother. Fortunately, they agreed on her care, but that’s not always the case. For that reason, it’s wise to designate someone who will follow the treatment you would want in the event you are unable to communicate your preferences.

Financial Power of Attorney

While my husband and brother-in-law had their mother’s medical POA by default, her finances were a different story. While she was hospitalized, my husband and I paid some of her bills out of our own pocket and took care of others via her debit cards and previously arranged auto-pay. But some creditors simply wouldn’t work with us without proof of a financial power of attorney or a death certificate. A financial POA, also known as a durable financial POA, designates someone who can help manage your financial affairs if needed. The nonprofit Ohio Legal Help has free forms to get you started.

Wills, Estates & Trusts

When someone dies in Ohio, their estate generally goes through probate court. The court supervises taxes and debts and distributes assets to beneficiaries, following the terms of the decedent’s will. If there’s no will, the court distributes any assets based on state regulations.

The Franklin County Probate Court Resource Center can assist people who can’t afford a lawyer with simple probate matters. For instance, they can help transfer assets to the heirs of a small estate.

Beneficiaries can’t skip the probate process, but careful estate planning—commonly accomplished by creating a revocable living trust—can help avoid it. (This is also helpful if you have children who will need support and care after your death.)

With a revocable trust, your assets are legally owned by the trust. While you’re alive, you can use them as you normally would; when you die, the trust takes over your estate. The trustee you designate manages the assets and uses them to provide support for your children. You can change the trust or terminate it at any time.

There are numerous online resources for creating a DIY will. That said, Ohio Legal Help and local attorneys warn against doing so and advise seeking professional help since individual circumstances vary greatly.

Odds and Ends

Other things to consider and communicate to family and friends include:

●      Who will care for your pets after you die?

●      What should happen to your social media accounts and other digital assets?

●      Do you want any type of memorial service or celebration of life?

There are resources to help you think through such issues, including books like "Checklist for My Family," from the American Bar Association and AARP, and the cheekily named "Sorry for Your Loss - It’s Me," which is the one I bought. Be sure to store it somewhere your loved ones can find it!

Also check with organizations such as the Ohio State Bar Association and the Columbus Bar Association, which provide lawyer referral services as well as easy-to-understand overviews regarding such topics as living wills and health care POAs, wills, estate planning and digital assets, probate basics and much more.

Jennifer Wray is a freelance writer, mother and fan of all things pop culture.

This story is from the Spring 2021 issue of Columbus Parent.