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How to talk about your medical wishes with your family in case you get sick

Now is the time to get our health and financial affairs in order and have those necessary conversations with our loved ones about what to do in case we get sick, or worse.

You need to talk to your family about your medical wishes and financial affairs, in case you get sick.
You need to talk to your family about your medical wishes and financial affairs, in case you get sick.Read moreAldo Murillo / Getty Images

We’re all trying to stay healthy right now, and keep our loved ones safe. But it’s time to plan in case that changes.

Confronting our own death and that of our loved ones isn’t an easy thing to do in the best of times. But this week as we watch strangers, friends and loved ones fall ill and die during the coronavirus pandemic — as of Wednesday, the U.S. death toll is at 13,000 with more than 400,000 positive cases throughout the nation — our mortality has become crystal clear.

If, God forbid, we fall ill to COVID-19, surely we want our wishes followed. Now is the time to get our health and financial affairs in order and have those necessary conversations with our loved ones. Because we don’t want to burden them with “what-ifs” when they are grieving.

And you shouldn’t be burdened either.

Those conversations are tough. But here’s how to have them, and what you can, and should, plan right now.

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Broach the subject with kindness

The key is to be open and honest with loved ones about your final wishes, said Nellie Scanlon, a licensed professional counselor and president of the Pennsylvania Counseling Association. “Let them know you love them and that you are not planning to go anywhere anytime soon," Scanlon said. “But that you want to make sure they have the information they will need just in case.”

For those from whom you need to gather information — like parents and grandparents — remind them that talking about their final wishes is part of taking care of you. “Let them know this is a very compassionate thing to do because you will need this information at your fingertips during stressful times,” said Dr. Rebecca Sudore, founder and director of the University of San Francisco-based medical decision making website, Prepare for Your Care.

Make a plan for your health care

  1. Prepare an advance medical directive. This document names your health care proxy — the person who will make medical decisions on your behalf in the event that you can’t. An advance medical directive also spells out your wishes of how doctors should care for you when you are sick. For example, if your heart stops beating, do you want a do not resuscitate order or do you want doctors to do everything in their power to save you? You can find a PA Advance Directive document at the Prepare for Your Care website. AARP also has a free advance directive form on their website.

  2. Pack a day’s worth of medications. If you get sick, you may be in the emergency room for a long time, Sudore cautions. And you don’t want to skip your medication. Also, make a list of your medications that you can give your attending physician if you do find yourself in the hospital. You should keep this list and your medications in your hospital bag.

  3. Have a hospital bag ready. When people get sick, they can get sick very quickly, Sudore said. And generally speaking, emergency rooms are not allowing visitors in. So you should have a bag packed with the names and phone numbers of your close friends and relatives that you want to be notified if you are too sick to communicate. You should also have in the bag your advance medical directive, a day’s worth of medications, your full list of medications (and instructions on how you take them.) And information about any dietary concerns. Make sure you have an extra cell phone charger, and a pair of clean clothes in the bag, as well. If you wear glasses or hearing aids, place extra pairs in there, too. It’s also a good idea to pack cash. Place this bag near your door so you can get to it quickly on your way to the hospital or emergency room.

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Get your financial affairs in order

  1. Choose a power of attorney. It’s important that you name a durable power of attorney. This person will keep your financial house in order — pay your mortgage or rent, utilities and credit card bills — if unfortunately, you can’t. In a pinch, you can find a link to print out a durable power of attorney form here. However, it’s a good idea to consult an attorney (virtually) to do this, says John P. Sanderson III, who’s a partner in Sanderson Law Firm, with Pennsylvania offices in Olyphant and Wilkes-Barre, because they can help make sure that your paperwork is filled in correctly. One important note: durable powers of attorney must be notarized. That can be hard when the law of the land is social distancing. So, as of April 2, Pennsylvania legislators waived the requirement that you have to be physically present with a notary to get your power of attorney and other estate planning documents notarized.

  2. Put all your information in one place. Bank information, insurance policies, websites where you pay your mortgage or rent, credit card information: all of it should be easily accessible, said Dan Hernandez, a certified financial planner for Lincoln Investment in Voorhees, New Jersey. This list should include name and website, your sign-in and passwords. “This will help you leave your family members in as good a position as possible to help handle your affairs,” Hernandez said.

  3. Make sure your beneficiaries are up to date. We often set up 401K’s and IRA’s and add a beneficiary. But then when things change — say we get married — we don’t add our spouse, pointed out estate attorney Barbara Lawrence, an attorney at Herrick, Feinstein. “If this information is up to date then your desired beneficiary will be taken care of,” Lawrence said.

Start preparing your will

Social distancing has made it hard to have wills notarized and witnessed, but “the consequences of not having written instructions outlining your last will and testament can leave a family in turmoil,” said Tracey Gordon, Philadelphia’s Register of Wills. Not to mention you don’t want the state to make your decisions for you. Gordon suggests you start by:

  1. Make a list of your assets

  2. List the people who are important to you

  3. List who gets what

  4. Sign the document

Most states will accept a will that has been signed at home in a pinch. But, because these wills weren’t witnessed or notarized, they are often held up in probate court, Sanderson said. When this happens, it costs money in fees to file motions and track down witnesses.

Because wills are estate planning documents, you can now get them notarized without being in the physical presence of a notary, Sanderson said. But they must be prepared by an attorney. In the long run, that will be worth it, Sanderson said, because they have a better chance of being processed easily in probate court.

In the unfortunate case that your loved ones need to present your will to probate, Pennsylvania is doing emergency probates virtually in order to follow the rules of social distancing. If your will has not been signed by a notary, an attorney must make the application for the probate to prevent fraud. For more information, go to the website.

Make a video of your wishes

Writing things down can be daunting, so you may want to make a video of your wishes, says Dawn Santoriello, a certified financial planner and president of the King of Prussia-based DS Financial Strategies. Here you can tell people where your important documents are like your will or advance directive. Perhaps this is how you tell your family how you want to be buried, whether you want to donate your organs, and what songs you want at your funeral. “A video is where you can put a voice to anything that means something,” Santoriello said. “And it can be memorialized for generations to come.”

» FAQ: Your coronavirus questions, answered.