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    Legal Documents and Paperwork Cancer Patients Need to Complete

    One of the last tasks that most cancer patients are thinking about is getting their legal and financial documents updated. But it is a prudent and wise task to put behind you … just in case.



    Having critical legal documents prepared or updated brings peace of mind to you, your spouse/partner and your family. It’s a sobering reminder, but trust me – you’ll feel much better once you get this done.


    When I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, I suggested to my husband that we should have my will updated, draw up a durable power of attorney and learn what the state laws were so that he would not be responsible for my medical bills in the event of my death. It was difficult for me to suggest, but I knew that we had to do that so that I wouldn’t worry about him if I took a turn for the worse. There were also a few other financial documents that I prepared and/or reviewed.


    No matter what your financial situation, most people need to have these documents prepared or updated.


    • Will. This is a critical legal document. If you die without a will, each state has laws that govern how your estate will be distributed. Your spouse might have to share your estate with your grown children. If you have custody of your children or are the legal guardian of an aged parent, the state will appoint a legal guardian for them if you don’t have a will. In a will, you also appoint an executor to oversee the details of a will. Many seniors don’t marry but live together; it’s critical to have a will to ensure that whatever you have goes to the person of your choice.


    • Update Beneficiaries for IRA, 401(k), Life Insurance and Other Pensions. If you’re in a second marriage, you might have forgotten to update your beneficiaries. Be sure to review your military pension beneficiary who could be eligible for a Survivor Benefit Plan. 

    Durable Power of Attorney . A durable power of attorney is a powerful document that gives the person appointed broad and sweeping powers if a person is medically incapacitated. The person appointed not only can make medical decisions on your behalf; they can also sign checks, complete financial transactions and keep the household running should you become incapacitated. Typically, a person would choose their spouse or other trusted family member because the powers are so sweeping.


    • Advance Directive, Sometimes Referred to as a Living Will. This document spells out the kind of medical care that a person prefers to have should they become unable to make decisions for themselves. A living will has more specific information as to how aggressive the person’s care should be if they become unconscious and unable to make decisions. Examples of a living will’s instructions might include whether to administer CPR or use a respirator or use a feeding tube. The advance directive provides a broader power where you can provide directions about the care you want to receive in a terminal condition or vegetative condition as well as appoint a healthcare “agent” who might clarify a patient’s meaning in an unexpected medical circumstance.
    • Do Not Resuscitate Orders. A patient does not have to have an advance directive or a living will. The patient or their family can tell their physician their wishes about a DNR order . Occasionally, family members of an older relative or a more distant relative, such as an uncle or cousin, may be placed in the unfortunate position of being the only relative present during a final illness and have to make the painful decision of whether CPR should be performed.
    • Checking Account with Right of Survivorship. Don’t assume that your joint checking account carries “right of survivorship.” This may vary from state to state and from bank to bank. It’s worth a call or trip to the bank to ensure that a jointly-held checking account (held by husband and wife or domestic partners) includes right of survivorship. This ensures that the account won’t be frozen in the event one of the account holders dies.
    • Social Security Check in the Event of Death. Retired couples may not realize a financially painful fact of the Social Security system. The check you receive each month is for the prior month. Social Security’s policy states, “Let us know if a person receiving Social Security benefits dies. We can’t pay benefits for the month of death.” Sadly, you won’t have to let Social Security know. The funeral home usually notifies Social Security of a person’s death. With the next 30 days, the surviving spouse can expect that last Social Security deposit to be withdrawn from the checking account – often resulting in overdraft fees and severe financial hardship.
    • Prepare a Password List. If the person who usually pays the household bills is diagnosed with cancer, it’s wise to create a list of monthly bills, the URL, the login and the password. A set-back after surgery could leave the bill payer of the family in ICU, and all the household bills (including utility bills and/or mortgage unpaid). The other option is to schedule everything to be paid automatically if your finances are sufficiently stable.

    • Safety Deposit Box Access. Ensure that someone else knows where your safety deposit box is located. Add them so that they have access if needed. Wills, life insurance policies, stock certificates and other irreplaceable items should be stored there for safekeeping.
    Some people might feel like updating important financial documents is morbid or setting themselves up to die. Nothing could be further from the truth. With some 15 million cancer survivors in the U.S. and growing, it’s evident that more and more people surive cancer. But if the unthinkable happens, you’ll be glad that you protected your family.
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