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How My Mother’s Cancer Diagnosis Made Me Realize the Importance of Estate Planning

After my mother’s cancer diagnosis, I learned that having an estate plan is one of the most important things you can do for your loved ones.

In October 2011, soon after I had started my career as an attorney, my mom was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.

The news was shattering to my family. As we struggled to process our shock and confusion, we also had to think through some unpleasant logistics. What would happen to my mother’s belongings? Who would make decisions for her in her final days? The estate planning process had suddenly become more than a career for me — it was now deeply personal.

But my mother was prepared. Prior to her diagnosis, she had already created an estate plan, deciding what should happen to her possessions when she passed away. Perhaps planning for death seems overly practical or depressing, especially in the prime of life. But in truth, it was one of the kindest things my mother could have done for us.

We had roughly 19 months with her from her diagnosis until the day she passed away. During that time, we laughed (sometimes uncontrollably), lived, and loved. In the midst of it all, her estate plan allowed us to focus on what mattered most: her legacy and our family.

This, unfortunately, is not the experience for many people.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic serving as a daily reminder of our mortality, 70 percent of Americans still don’t have a will. However, estate planning — the process of making decisions about your property, healthcare, and finances in preparation for when you become incapacitated or pass away — is one of the most important things you can do for your loved ones.

Here are three common misconceptions about estate planning, and some tips to help you create these important documents:

1. “I don’t own anything, so I don’t need a will.”

I hear this one a lot. First of all, it’s likely untrue — you probably own more than you think you do. And everyone should have a will, even if your estate is modest. Why? You can also use your will to protect your minor children by choosing responsible guardians for them, name caretakers for your beloved pets, and communicate your funeral wishes to relieve your loved ones of making these difficult decisions. Having a will also makes the estate administration process easier and faster for your loved ones.

2. “My family knows my preferences, so I don’t have to talk to them about my end-of-life wishes.”

Even if it feels uncomfortable at first, you should talk to your loved ones about your estate. Don’t assume they know what you want. This conversation will help eliminate confusion and prevent family members from arguing about what you would have wanted.

Even if your family does know your wishes, they don’t get to make decisions about your estate if you die without an estate plan. Instead, a local court will make those decisions based on state laws, which may be different than what you would have wanted.

3. “Making a will is expensive. I can’t afford it.”

Many people think you have to hire a lawyer to write your will in order for the document to be valid, but that isn’t true. If your estate is simple, you can make a legally valid will on your own, free of charge or at a fraction of the cost.

With today’s technology, it’s easier than ever to access legally valid will documents online. The company where I work, FreeWill, is a free option supported by nonprofit organizations. You fill out a questionnaire and receive a will document customized to your wishes.

I speak from experience when I say estate planning is an act of love. Because my mother had laid the groundwork for her estate before her diagnosis, she didn’t have to start the planning process during a time of stress and sadness. As a result of her thoughtfulness and courage, my family could spend her final months deeply immersed in what mattered most: each other.

Make your free estate plan in twenty minutes or less on FreeWill.

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