Urn, Casket or Cryonics? The Joys of Estate Planning ... When You're Pregnant
She was nice enough and clearly knew her stuff about the law, but she was also a virtual stranger sitting at our breakfast table with me and my husband, asking us questions we'd never asked ourselves, or each other:
"If you sustain illness or injury that renders you incapable of expressing your wishes for medical care, who will be vested with the power of attorney?"
I wish I had put at least an ounce of forethought into what we were actually doing when we'd called an estate attorney and set up an appointment to create a will and trust. Instead, I put the meeting into my Outlook and mentally checked off one more thing I'd promised to do before the birth of my first child.
But here she was, doing what we were paying her to do, and I'm thinking to myself, "Lady, that's a really hard question. Can we skip that one?"
In truth, my husband and I had talked about a few things before the attorney's arrival, the fun stuff, if you will, of contingency planning. You know: Who would get my husband's bike collection? Oh what fun to think of who would want it most without really thinking of the circumstances required -- our deaths -- to make these claims a reality.
But here was a series of questions I hadn't anticipated. These questions were not about scenarios of how to handle things after our deaths, but decisions to make as we were staring at death. Uniquely personal decisions that we'd potentially have to make for each other.
The attorney said "Before you select someone with power of attorney, you should talk to that person. She may feel compelled to move forward with your wishes but also feel conflicted."
In other words, this decision is not all about you. You must consider the beliefs and comfort of the person to whom you grant power of attorney.
A recent piece in The New York Times spoke to the potential conflict between spouses who are on opposite sides of the spectrum -- when one opts to prolong life as long as scientifically feasible, while another feels strongly about accepting death. Cryonics, or the emerging field of low-temperature preservation of people or animals who are pronounced legally dead, offers yet another option to this already unsettling decision.
If you set up documentation that indicates you want to be left to die naturally while a loved one had deep-seated beliefs in the power of science to keep people alive at all costs, your loved one could become irrevocably traumatized in the event that he must sanction your last wishes.
The power of attorney issue my husband considered no big whoop: He's always said that if he couldn't maintain consciousness or a reasonable quality of life he'd rather not live. I fear that he's not considering all the options. What, exactly, is "reasonable"?
He also wants to be cremated and have his ashes spread somewhere in nature.
"You'll know where," he said to me. I imagined him, or rather his soul, looking down on me disapprovingly as I release his powdery remains on the wrong side of Half Dome.
While it may seem reasonable to delay these hard decisions and leave it to loved ones to determine what will be in everyone's collective best interest, this approach can result in resentment or endless doubt.
I recalled the struggle of my family five years earlier to determine my father's wishes for his remains three weeks before he died of cancer. There was no will to reference, just a somewhat recalcitrant one-worded response when I hesitatingly asked what he wanted to have done with his remains, not like he was going to die or anything -- just in case: "Plots," he said. We figured that he was referring to burial plots his parents had purchased for themselves years ago but didn't want, but we couldn't be too sure. Why would he want someone else's plots? Was he just attempting to be morbidly practical, in essence saying, don't waste any more space than you have to? His ashes remain in an urn in his former office, awaiting a family decision on how to disperse them.
I resented that he hadn't specified exactly what he wanted. In essence he put it in our hands, wondering if we'd done right by him. Even if he didn't know how he wanted his remains to be handled, having something in writing would put the agonized living at ease.
Another issue that seemed easier to decide was legal guardianship. "Seemed easier" being the operative phrase. A convenient aspect of being an identical twin is that you have an immediate go-to for such things as choosing a maid of honor or a legal guardian in the event of your untimely death. My sister had asked me to be one for her children -- it seemed like a no-brainer that she would be ours. But my husband also had a sibling, and I had other siblings -- one of whom is fabulous with children. What, exactly, makes someone more or less suitable for the job?
The attorney offered, "This is really something that you should discuss with someone first, not something someone should discover later, under bad circumstances." My concern became less about asking two of my siblings if they would take on this gargantuan responsibility and more about whom should be first runner-up. Would I offend?
We just signed our documents and did our follow-up homework of asking two friends to witness. That's another not-so-fun task. It broke the casual, light mood of our Saturday afternoon barbecue to take two of our friends aside (as you cannot ask your attorney or family/friends who are in the will) and asking them to do the honors. But here it is, our packet of proof that we've thought of the unthinkable.
I don't feel particularly relieved now that this has been done, but more lightly assured that I'm being responsible, like when I've taken vitamins or worn a seat belt. These measures don't prevent tragedy, but they provide my loved ones with assurances that I've done what I can to take care of them by taking care of myself.
Jory Des Jardins is a media consultant and co-founder of BlogHer. She writes on women's business issues, marketing, blogging, and entrepreneurship for publications such as Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, JackMyers.com, and her personal blog, From Here to Autonomy, formerly Pause.