Tiny Steps to Adulthood: Don’t Make Your Loved Ones Guess

The time to get your affairs in order was probably yesterday.

Tiny Steps to Adulthood is back! Doesn’t it sound like a new edition of American Girl dolls, complete with a tiny briefcase and calculator? We can only live to dream.

Last month we talked about the emotions of budgeting and making money work for you, and how you might begin by totaling up your debt, reviewing your monthly bills, or starting to identify your financial values. The comments felt like a million different complicated and sensitive conversations cracking wide open, and there is lots of writing to do about all of them. This month, let’s focus on another critical aspect of being a grown-up: getting your health-and-death-related things in order.

Wills, Living Wills, and Health care Proxies.
or: Don’t Make Your Loved Ones Guess

Here’s what I originally thought about Wills: They’re for rich people, right? Wouldn’t I only need a will to make sure that someone knows to feed the cats the super organic expensive food? I live a pretty uncomplicated life as a young(-ish) renter, free from debt, except those billion dollar student loans that die with me, and I don’t have a ton of, um, assets. However, after perusing the inimitable Get Your Sh*t Together site, which you should bookmark, I now understand that a will is not necessarily about the fancy stuff. The will exists so that my beloved does not have to guess what I would have wanted, should the horrible day ever come that I die before her.

I like to think that day’s not going to come; that K and I and the cats are all going to just slip away together in our sleep, holding paws, fifty years from now. But, and this is the theme of the whole Tiny Steps series—avoidance gets you exactly nowhere. Whatever the great hereafter, I don’t want to be ghostly cringing and apologizing while a grieving K sorts through a billion journals and financial accounts, trying to figure out what I might have wanted. (P.S., K: Lena gets all the college journals, and while it’s up to her, I am just suggesting that she create a one-woman musical using the poems from sophomore year.)

The other night, we met with a lawyer to begin the will process. You don’t necessarily need a lawyer to do this, because there are excellent templates online. Although I am not a lawyer, so you should not take my word for it. But as a queer couple, it’s in our best interests to make sure this is sealed airtight. Our marriage is legal in our home state and according to the federal government, at the moment, but what happens when we go to K’s family’s house in Virginia or happen to get into a car accident on the way there? Neither of us is thrilled at the thought of one disgruntled hospital attendant preventing us from being together if something bad should happen. Hence the need for legal counsel.

In retrospect, I think we both sort of thought that we’d have these conversations while with the lawyer, like we did not need to have them before we met with the lawyer. And wow, what a mistake that was. She helpfully fired off a million questions about temporary guardianship, estates, executors, and other important sounding terms. And we stared at each other, stared at her, and basically were all, “My, those do sound interesting, don’t they.” As if we were at Downton for tea, instead of disaster planning for our life. So do as I say, not as I did! Start talking about this stuff with your spouse or intended or sibling or your close friends or the APW community. And then, when you have a clearer understanding of your wishes, then think about seeking legal guidance. Consider the following:

What is precious to you?

Inventory your stuff. My financial directives will be pretty easy, at this point: there’s just a few retirement accounts to consider. But there are some sentimental items that I might want to call out. There’s the little pad and pencil that hung on my great-grandmother’s college dorm door where all her friends scribbled quaint little notes, a wonderful precursor to the dry-erase board I used many years later. While it has no real financial value, it has endless sentimental value. For you, maybe that’s the many years of costumes and fancy dresses you’ve amassed that would be much appreciated by the drama department of your beloved Girl Scout Camp. If you think you might have specific guidelines about your belongings, financial or otherwise, start assembling those instructions.

Health care Wishes

If you aren’t able to make decisions about your health care, then someone else needs to do that for you, and even if you think you are the healthiest, most youthful version of yourself, you should identify who that person might be. If you’re married, that’s likely your spouse, but if you are engaged or dating or single, you should still talk to someone close to you and see if they’re willing to take this on. Once you’ve identified them, then it’s your job to talk through the sort of decisions you’d want them to make on your behalf, should you become incapable of making them. If you are in an irreversible coma, do you want tube feeding? If you’re pregnant and in a car accident, do you want to be kept artificially alive to keep your fetus growing? What about palliative care, if you learn that the cancer is untreatable?

In New York, where I live, you can outline your health care wishes through completing advance directives, also known as a Living Will, and you will also need a health care proxy, which identifies the person you want to manage your health care decisions if you can’t. Many states combine these documents or call them different things, which makes this stuff seem intimidating and unfairly complicated. It all boils down to asking someone to make educated decisions about your health issues if you cannot, and having conversations about your wishes with that person.

Guardianship: Who gets the kid?

We don’t have a kid, but we have a hazy idea that we might someday. So when the lawyer asked who we would want to appoint as guardian in the event we can work the logistics of having said kid out, we both had ready answers, they just happened to be entirely different ones. So now we know the theoretical guardian for the theoretical kid needs to be added to the list of conversations ahead of us. Do we want someone related to us? Or do we want someone who would raise the kid with the values we would have hoped to impart? Is it going to matter if the kid stays in the town where we were planning to raise them? Does it matter if the theoretical kid and the theoretical guardian get along? This is a lot of currently theoretical questions, but I can only imagine that our future baby-having selves will be relieved when we start talking them through now.

Holograms: Not Just for Jem

If you don’t have a printer, or your wireless keyboard has stopped working, or if you really can’t borrow from the office copier or go to the Staples down the street, then at the very least consider writing your intentions out by hand, signing them, and saving them in a safe place. This is called a Holographic Will, and while it won’t be considered legal in all states, at least you’re documenting something. It won’t work in my state, but see if yours will accept it. At the very least, you’re giving your loved ones a little bit of guidance as to what you would have wanted.

This Month’s Homework:

  • Consider your valuable and sentimental stuff. You don’t have to inventory down to the last teaspoon, but make a list of the things that you know you want to go somewhere in particular. K, reading over my shoulder, adds, “or the things you think will stress out your partner/family.” Noted! Are you okay with your person doing what they wish with your stuff, or do you have other plans?
  • Start thinking about what you’d want, if you couldn’t speak for yourself, and begin to outline guidelines for your proxy to consider if it ever comes to that.
  • Think about who you want as your health care proxy, and ask them! Check out what your state requires. If you live in New York, print out the New York State Health Care Proxy Form, which is clear, easy to understand, and super fast to complete.
  • And for AP credit: Guess where Rachel’s important documents are? In her fireproof box, of course! I was so impressed by this, as ours are currently shoved in between back issues of Cooks Illustrated somewhere. I am committing to you in a public forum: by the end of next quarter, I will have secured a fireproof box in which to store these documents safely.

Lastly, if you’re starting to feel paralyzed by avoidance and indecision, refer to the post-it note I tacked up on the mirror when I was trying to finish graduate school: Don’t Let Perfect Be The Enemy of Good. That goes for homework, for wedding planning, for financial planning, for future career planning, for getting outside for a ten minute walk, for just about anything. Everything is easier when you start small.

Tiny steps, folks. Tiny tiny steps.

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