Love and Death

elder hug

My mother died last month. When people offer their condolences, I assure them that mom was 90 and passed quickly in the merciful care of hospice at the University of Kentucky Medical Center. My faith, fragile as it may be, tells me she is with her loving creator and reunited with her husband of 56 years (he was also my dad). I’m sad, and I miss her, and I will be okay.

The backstory, like every family’s backstory, is more complicated. I have a brother Dan; our sister Polly has Down Syndrome. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t expect that I’d be responsible for Polly one day. Fortunately, our parents were keenly aware of that likelihood and planned for it accordingly. Here are some steps that made this moment easier for us all:

  1. Early on, mom and dad worked with their attorney to establish a trust-based estate plan. It includes a Special Needs Trust for Polly. This trust holds assets for her and does not impede her eligibility for state, local, or federal benefits programs. They also used an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust as part of the plan.
  2. My father, intending to be frugal, initially balked at the prospect of funding these trusts. Fortunately, his attorney explained that an unfunded trust is a worthless trust. That guidance, coupled with my mother’s glare, persuaded him to place their resources accordingly.
  3. My parents sold our childhood home and moved into a retirement community in a thoughtful, deliberate way. They wanted to avoid a crisis in which Polly was abruptly uprooted from her surroundings. They found a nearby group home for Polly and chose a community where visits from her were welcome. They spent almost a year paring down their already tidy household, passing along pieces they knew we and others would want. For many years, they were the young whippersnappers in their community. As they became more elderly, it was a great comfort to know they were in a place they loved and one which loved them back.
  4. When dad died in January 2021, mom’s cognition and physical health—already in decline—spiraled downward. After several hospitalizations, she willingly agreed to move into assisted living. Dan and I spent a week and a half downsizing their apartment. This task, while daunting, was so much easier than clearing out our childhood home. Our attorney restated the estate plan so Dan and I could take over things like mom’s Power of Attorney. He was careful to be sure mom was truly willing to make this change and had the capacity to do so. The timing of this process was crucial as mom’s ability to make these choices might not have lasted much longer.
  5. Our attorney also helped Dan and me become Polly’s legal guardians and conservators. The process was aided by mom’s desire to turn over these responsibilities after a half-century. It was hindered by a court system backed up because of COVID-19. We were fortunate to have everything squared away a mere 13 months before mom’s death.

Thanks to these arrangements, I was able to speak plainly with the emergency room staff when mom experienced a massive brain hemorrhage and became unresponsive. I knew she did not want extraordinary measures and instead wished to be kept comfortable. “Team Polly,” the wonderful caretakers in Kentucky, already had experience with Dan and me as her legal and financial decision-makers. After Mom’s graveside service, Dan and I spent a memorable afternoon clearing out her remaining possessions. We laughed a lot, shook our heads several times, and I only cried once (or twice, but who’s counting?). We’re currently in the long, tiresome process of settling the estate. Fortunately, as a trust-based plan, it’s likely to resolve by the end of the year. Patience and attention to detail are the key elements here. It helps that Dan and I are close and eager to assist each other with all the arcane paperwork.

So, what does this very personal experience have to do with Johnson, Gasink & Baxter? Simply put, the firm’s attorneys are well-equipped to help you and your family prepare for the inevitable. They have an in-depth understanding of ways to assist with individual circumstances like a special-needs child. If they offer specific advice, (e.g., fund your trust), please follow it. And, when your loved one dies, they can help you navigate that process, too. Finally, my parents’ planning would have been even more complete had they checked in with their attorney in the decade before their deaths. Please consider reviewing your estate plan with our attorneys if you have not done so in the last five years. A well-executed estate plan isn’t showy or exciting. Still, it’s one of the most caring, helpful gifts you can give to your loved ones. JGB is honored to help you make that gift.

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