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Planning ahead eases the burden families face with the death of a loved one

Attorney Barry Meyers hopes people will stop practicing the Gary Cooper style of end-of-life planning.In the movie “High Noon,” Cooper’s character awaits a train carrying the criminals who plan to kill him. The train will arrive at noon. At two minutes till, he writes his will.

Meyers thinks that’s all wrong.

“People shouldn’t do wills when there’s a crisis; they should do it when it’s calm,” he says.

While death doesn’t loom so dramatically for the population at large, many people still put off writing wills and planning funerals. According to a 2003 AARP survey, 41 percent of people 45 and older don’t have a will.

“The feeling is, ‘I’m not going to die. It’ll happen to the other guy,’ ” says Meyers, a certified elder law attorney in Bellingham. “It’s not on top of our list to do, to plan about something we don’t want to think about.”

But without planning, a sad and stressful time can become even more difficult as family members scramble to figure out funeral and estate plans.

“I was responsible for burying my mother, and the burden fell entirely on me and it was a nightmare,” says Dolores Franco, 64, of Bellingham. “It was just terrible. It was really hard.”

She and her husband, Albert, are planning ahead to save their five adult children from going through the same heartaches and headaches.

WHEN TO PLAN

Though discussions of funerals and wills can be considered gloomy, the earlier the planning can be done, the better. The Francos have already written their wills and arranged — and begun paying for — their funerals.

“Just face it, sooner than later,” Dolores Franco advises. “If we would have faced this when we were employed, we wouldn’t have to make monthly payments out of our retirement. You never know if you’re going to have an accident and die unexpectedly, so you should do it right away.”

Many people don’t think about their funerals until a friend or close family member dies. The average age of clients who have pre-paid funerals at Westford Funeral Home in Bellingham is 65 to 72, though people in their 30s do come in to fill out emergency information forms.

“I have a policy for my wife and I, and I’m 58 years old. Why? Because I don’t want my kids to have to deal with it,” says Rob Westford of Westford Funeral Home. “I don’t have to worry about them having to come down and pick out a casket for me.”

Some people begin planning their estates once they have children. This is when they determine guardians or can set up trusts and trustees to care and provide for their children if they die. Even if someone doesn’t have children, they should meet with an attorney for will, powers of attorney and living will planning while they are young and healthy.

“The time to do it is when there isn’t a crisis, when it’s a good time in someone’s life when things are relatively stable and they can think about these issues,” Meyers says.

THE LEGAL SIDE

Even before going to an attorney, people should think about where they want their possessions to go after they die — whether it’s to friends, family or charity.

“It’s a control thing,” Meyers says. “If you don’t do the planning, you may leave the control to others, and it may be contrary to what you wanted.”

Bellingham attorney Katti Esp has seen what can happen if wills are not properly handled, leaving assets to be distributed according to state statute instead of one’s wishes. She says she had a client who came in to make his will at the request of his family. After he died, no one could find the will, and when they finally did it was unsigned and invalid. Though his will left his possessions to his friends and neighbors, because it wasn’t signed, his assets were split between two second cousins who didn’t get along.

The Francos’ wills include written instructions to their children. Their daughter has been added to their checking account and told about their safe deposit box to prevent financial confusion. They have also talked with their children about their planning — even who to talk to at the funeral home they are using.

“It’s comforting to know that it is all taken care of,” Dolores Franco says.

Outside of the will, parents can go through their home with their children to determine who gets what and iron out disagreements over any particular items. Parents should then make a list to keep with the will.“It’s more memories than anything else,” Esp says.

FUNERAL ARRANGEMENTS

For those left behind, the death of a close family member is already traumatic enough without worrying about how to plan and afford a funeral.

“It’s been on our mind all these years, but my husband has a serious heart condition, so we needed to face the facts,” says Franco of funeral planning. “We put it off for as long as we could.”

Those who pre-plan their funerals can choose their caskets, the details of their services and whether they are buried or cremated. The Francos have their funerals planned down to the hymns, but most importantly, they’ve begun paying for their both funerals, which cost about $7,000 each.

“The upside is that when we do die, our children won’t be grief-stricken and spending more money than they need to. They won’t have to take out their wallet at all,” Franco says. “They don’t have to figure out where the money’s going to come from. I’ve seen funerals where kids fight over who’s going to pay for the funeral and how they’re going to finance it. It’s just not good for them.”

The average cost for a funeral was $6,500 in 2004, according to the National Funeral Director’s Association — a number that can be shocking for family members left with the bill.

“When you put death and dollars together, it’s not a subject you talk about lightly,” says Greg Brethour, family service counselor at Westford Funeral Home. “So many times you’ll hear, ‘I didn’t know it cost that much.’ Nobody likes surprises.”

Those interested in planning should have at least three things decided, says Michael Anderson, director of family services at Moles Family Funeral Homes. People should choose what they want done with their remains, usually burial or cremation; which type of service they would like; and where they would like to be interred or have their ashes scattered.

At most funeral homes, such as Westford and Moles, people can set up accounts listing vital statistics the home can keep on file until their death, with no obligation to use those services. The files can include emergency contacts, organ donation data, immediate family, will location, doctor’s name and more. Brethour says, one woman gave written instructions for what to do with all of her pets. In another file, a man has a letter to his wife, notes and pictures with which he wants to be buried.

“When a death occurs, there are about 90 questions that need to be responded to,” Anderson says. “If we have the majority of those questions answered, that will alleviate stress at a very emotional time.”

THE 'INTANGIBLE'

For those who choose not to pre-plan their funeral, they can include death wishes in their will. Esp recently had someone write in that they wanted a pizza party, though she more often sees requests for ashes to be scattered in the wilderness or at sea.

“At this point, I’m not really amazed at anything people want,” she says.

Property, bank accounts and burial wishes can all be catalogued, but it is the human element that people often neglect.

“The intangible — it’s cleaning up your relationships, telling your kids you love them,” Esp says. “I think there’s a lot of people who choose not to deal with relationships because, well ‘I’ll get to it later on.’ ”

Though it does require a certain acceptance of your own mortality, making plans for your death will help make others’ lives easier.

“I like to think of it as an insurance policy,” Esp says. “Yes, we are all going to die, but just because you do your estate planning doesn’t mean you’re going to die tomorrow.”

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