Don't leave people wondering. Communicating your wishes is the part of this article that strikes

I tend to think about death and dying quite often. Recently, several close friends were diagnosed with cancer and it brought up this topic in my mind again. However, the one event that really forced me to pause and consider this topic was a recent incident on a flight to D.C.

I got up to use the restroom and the next thing I knew, I was in the back galley of the airplane with two flight attendants standing over me, looking concerned. One woman kept repeating, “Are you okay?” Piecing together the conversations between the flight attendants and the passenger (who was standing behind me), I learned that I had lost consciousness and fortunately, didn’t hit my head on my way down. A few minutes later, after a healthy dose of orange juice, I stood up and once again lost consciousness.

In that moment when I lost consciousness, the thought that flashed through my mind was, “Hmm, I wonder if this is how one dies.”

This experience made me pause and think more deeply about death and dying. But perhaps more importantly, about the time between this moment and death. Over the next few weeks, I plan on exploring this topic from different angles but since I am a lawyer, I thought I'd start with the legal end of death.

When I interviewed estate planning lawyers about death and dying, this is what they shared.

1. It's normal to have emotions about planning for your death.

The first obstacle clients must work with in developing an estate plan is the mixed emotions regarding property transfers upon their death. Without an estate plan your assets may go to unintended beneficiaries with unnecessary tax and other liabilities upon your death. Some clients resist the process, although even coming to my office is a big step in estate planning which demonstrates a willingness to begin a dialogue. Many people do estate planning out of obligation, often fueled by a spouse or other interested family member. Others don’t share this sense of obligation and don’t want to be bothered. Some clients tackle estate planning head on and report breakthroughs in family communication and a great sense of accomplishment when the documents are finally signed.

— John O'Grady, estate planning attorney, San Francisco,Calif.

2. No one gets a free pass. It’s going to happen.

Death happens to everyone—some, sooner than others. You are not immune. As cliché as it is, it is true that tomorrow isn’t promised. So, just because you aren’t ready to accept the fact that one day you will die, that it will happen, you should still be prepared—if not for you, for your loved ones who will be faced with making decisions for you.

— Carmen M. Rosas, estate planning attorney, Redwood City, Calif.

3. Plan for your death, for the sake of the living.

If you’ve ever lost a loved one, you know the pain that comes along with it. The loss alone is heartbreaking. Add in the decisions leading up to the death. Electing a person to make life-altering decisions. Selecting a funeral or burial or cremation location. Deciding on a memorial or a viewing to remember them by. Paperwork, attorneys, bills. It’s emotional and stressful. By creating an estate plan ahead of time, you ease the chaos when you do die. Be self-less. Create an estate plan.

— Carmen M. Rosas, estate planning attorney, Redwood City, Calif.

4. Communicate your wishes.

The road to solid estate planning is paved with communication. Get your trusted loved ones and advisors involved. The fewer surprises to your survivors after your death, the less chance there will be confusion or disputes. An estate plan is a great idea regardless of your net worth.

5. Your plan is just that—a plan. It can change.

You will learn much by living with your plan for a while. Plans are made to be changed. Review all of your estate planning documents and beneficiary designations every 3-5 years and after any major life event (e.g. marriage/divorce, death, birth, significant change in financial situation, move or change in property ownership). You may amend your estate plans during your lifetime.

— John O'Grady, estate planning attorney, San Francisco, Calif.

Of course, estate planning is simply one aspect of death and dying.

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