Honoring End-of-Life Wishes

  • Find out if your loved one has either an Advanced Directive or POLST that specifies the type of care for the end of their life.
  • Make sure you have your loved one’s will available.
  • If a will is not available, there are other methods by which your loved one’s wishes may be honored.
  • In all circumstances, take comfort in the fact that you are honoring the memory of your loved one. 

There are many things to think about both immediately before and immediately after a loved one’s passing. One of the most important matters to consider is honoring the wishes they had for the end of their life. These wishes may be made clear in a will or advanced directive, or they may need some figuring out. Moreover, there may be concerns regarding the distribution of your loved one’s property among other friends and family members. Whatever the case may be, these moments can be emotionally and practically challenging. The important thing is to let the memory of your loved one ground you through the challenges this difficult time in life may present. 

There are two similar but distinct documents that are used to indicate the type of care people at the end of their life wish to receive. One is known as an Advanced Directive while the other is called a POLST, or Physician’s Orders for Life-Sustaining Treatment. An Advanced Directive may be specified for any adult, not just ones facing life-threatening illnesses. It outlines the general desires that a loved one facing a life-threatening situation may have for their care. It also clarifies uncertainties such as how long they wish to be kept alive by healthcare personnel, whether or not they would like a chaplain or other religious intermediary to be present for the end of their life, who they would choose to make decisions on their behalf, and any other matters they may wish to include. 

In contrast, a POLST is available only to those with a serious illness. It indicates the specific wishes of the patient and gives specific orders for physicians. Unlike Advanced Directives, which are not generally carried with someone wherever they go, a POLST travels with patients across settings. This alleviates the difficulty of identifying their wishes. If your loved one possesses either of these documents, it can naturally relieve the stress that accompanies making these difficult end-of-life decisions. However, if they have not made their wishes explicit, it may be up to you or whoever is granted your loved one’s medical power of attorney to make those hard choices. Should this unhappy task fall on your shoulders, do not despair. Reflect deeply on what you think your loved one might want or need in order to feel comfortable in their final days. If you are feeling hesitant about making certain decisions, confer with people who you think may have insight into your loved one’s wishes, and remember that any decision you make is for someone beloved by you. 

Once the unfortunate day of your loved one’s passing finally arrives, the matter of executing their will arises. Usually, there is only one will they have left behind, in which case it is up to the appointed executor of that will to carry out their wishes. A more complicated situation arises when either your loved one has left no will or they seem to have left multiple wills. In the latter case, the latest will is generally considered the only valid one. However, there are circumstances in which the most recent will may be contested. 

Generally, only the will’s beneficiaries and those who stand to inherit property may contest a will. They may do so if they believe the will was fraudulently signed, if they believe their loved one had reduced mental capacity when they signed the will, if they believe the signer of the will experienced undue influence from another, or if they believe the will was not signed according to state law. If this happens to you, it is generally advised to seek out experienced legal counsel. Even with legal assistance, these proceedings often present burdensome emotional challenges. Through these challenges, it is important to remind all parties involved to remain focused on keeping a level head. The process is about honoring the wishes of your loved one even if you or others are unsatisfied with their outcomes. 

In the event that your loved one has left no will, state laws usually dictate who inherits what from the deceased. Sometimes, however, families discuss amongst themselves how best to apportion what their loved one has left behind. In these cases, if any disputes arise, do your best to deal with everyone involved with kindness and compassion. Take a moment every now and then to reflect on your relationships with your loved one. Take comfort in the fact that you are helping their memory live on by honoring their wishes. This will help you maintain focus during this emotionally taxing time.