Eric Douglas Published

What You Should Know About Planning For Your Death While You’re Living

Attorney and older adult sit side-by-side discussing his will.
While most of us don’t want to talk about it, it is vitally important to make plans for final arrangements: for our aging parents and ourselves.
Sebra/Adobe Stock

While most of us don’t want to talk about it, it is vitally important to make plans for your final arrangements. 

For WVPB’s radio series “Getting Into Their Reality: Caring For Aging Parents,” News Director Eric Douglas spoke with Charleston Attorney Franki Parsons, from the law firm Ray, Winton & Kelley, about wills and estate planning and the problems that arise if you don’t have them when you die. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: Let’s talk about some of the legal issues when caring for aging parents, or for ourselves as well. Where do you want to start? 

Parsons: To your point on the topic of aging parents, I have this conversation not just once a day, but multiple times a day. I’m 45 years old, most of my friends are about the same age group and we are in the sandwich generation. I do not have children, but a lot of people are caring for children and also parents who are declining and have a career. It is a lot to juggle. And this is a very timely topic that I feel will hit home with a lot of people.

Douglas: What’s the first step, I mean? Prior to parents declining physically, mentally, I assume you would say get all these papers in order, have those difficult conversations. So how do you get started? 

Parsons: All of us, regardless of age, need two things. This is how I explain it to most clients. You need your life planning documents and your estate planning documents. Life planning documents are powers of attorney and Revocable Living Trusts. If you or I left here today and got into a car wreck and were in a coma, financial powers of attorney are very important because you need to have someone who can manage your financial affairs, access your accounts, manage your business affairs generally, if you’re not able to.

Charleston attorney Franki Parsons
Charleston Attorney Franki Parsons from the firm Ray, Winton & Kelley. Courtesy

Douglas: When we go to the hospital, we’re checking in for surgery, they’ll give us a form for a medical power of attorney, but that’s not what you’re talking about.

Parsons: Equally important. Medical powers of attorney are also part of that life planning document set that I talked about. Medical powers of attorney – say if I cannot speak for myself – here is [the person] who may make decisions about my medical care. Also, in a lot of those documents, the ones we use at our law firm, contain a living power of attorney, or living will, I should say, as part of the medical power of attorney, and also directions for the disposition of your remains. You’d be surprised how many conflicts arise about what we do with the remains of an individual once they’ve passed on.

Douglas: Which is really not the time you wouldn’t want to be having that conversation.

Parsons: No. In older documents, you’ll often see that type of language put into a will. The problem is when we need to make the decision about what we’re going to do with a body, we might not know where the will is. We have not had an executor appointed, we don’t have access to that document quite often.

Douglas: It may not be found for a week or two.

Parsons: There was actually language put into the West Virginia code, I believe in 2020, or 2021, discussing funerary provisions that go into medical powers of attorney. So we are doing that as a general practice now.

You definitely want it in a document that whoever is making decisions for you, while you’re still alive and incapacitated, would have access to it so they know what to do. Even if you have prepaid for a funeral, whoever is dealing with your body might not know that. In your situation, you clearly know what your mother’s plans are. If you have someone in my situation, I don’t have a spouse or children who would be around and maybe know that, right? So you would want to make sure you had that outlined in a document that whoever is around making those decisions would know you prepaid for a funeral.

Douglas: You’re talking about what happens when you’ve died and the hospital is asking, “Where do you want us to send the body?”

Parsons: I have clients that it seems to go one or two ways. I have clients that just put a general provision in that document that says, “My agent who’s named as the medical power of attorney can decide what to do with my remains.” I have other clients that want me to very specifically outline they are to be cremated, and where the ashes are to be spread, and what type of service can be held and who may have ashes. It’s a personal preference, but there is a legalized and outlined way to do that now.

Douglas: At the same time, we still end up with an awful lot of people who die without a will, without any plan.

Parsons: Yes. And well, as I said that you have your life planning documents, your powers of attorney and your revocable living trust can be a life planning document. And I can elaborate on that later if you want. But yes, an estate plan also is important. I have clients that come in who I think don’t want to face their death.

Douglas: It’s a tough conversation for a lot of people to have.

Parsons: The funny thing about life is none of us are getting out alive. It’s just the way it works. That’s the levity I try to bring to the situation. I have noticed in 20 years of doing this, I have two camps of people. You have the people who don’t want to talk about it. And if they do come to my office, they are there begrudgingly. And then you have people who will come in and have binders with tabs and an outline. They have thought carefully about this, and they want to make sure everything is buttoned up so that there’s no issue at their death. I just think it’s a matter of how you view the dying process.

And as you said, it’s not a pleasant conversation to ever have. But the other thing I tell clients is, “Well, you don’t have to have a will. I know where your stuff goes when you die if you don’t.” I get a puzzled look quite often. “Well, the West Virginia code, through the law of intestate succession, tells us what to do with your stuff.” And that normally registers a light bulb moment of, “Oh, no, I don’t want the code or lawmakers to decide who gets my stuff.”

Douglas: I’m sure you see this every day. But what’s the scope? I mean, this is an aging state with an older population. I imagine it’s tough, too, as families have moved away. It doesn’t feel like there’s any central clearinghouse of this information either. 

Parsons: There isn’t. That’s why I got into this business. I’ve been an attorney for 20 years. I’ve been doing this since about 2011, because of what happened in my own family with my father. When I lived through that, I realized, “Wow, there’s a gross under-education of the population about the importance of powers of attorney, which I call your life planning documents. There’s a gross lack of education about that. There are attorneys who handle this work, but not a lot. That’s why I shifted gears and decided to focus on this.”