Planning to Die: A 5-part Guide to Understanding the values of wills / Part 1 Definitions

 In Advice, End-of-Life Planning

Guest Blog: Katie Ortman, blogger

For every other 30-something year-old I know, the hypothetical scenarios of getting your affairs in order are just that. Very hypothetical. But whatever age you are, even if it is just hypothetical, nothing makes having the conversation about death with loved ones easy. For me, it’s very real. I am, after all, living with a rare form of stage 4 cancer.

From my experience, having these conversations with my husband has been extremely painful. Partially because it has been over two years since my friend Julia offered to do my Will. After our first meeting, we confirmed it made sense to have Nick do his at the same time. She generously offered to do that, too.

My dad is a doctor. Wills were dinner table topics growing up. When my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, there were no unknowns around her wishes for end of life care. After she passed away, my dad remarried a nurse anesthetist. The dinner table topics of blood, stool colors and consistencies, death and nasal congestion continued. This was my normal. In my 20s, my dad and stepmom had all six of us kids sign an Advance Directive and email it to them.

But for Nick, as my friend Meagan put it best, “British people just don’t talk about that kind of shit.”

She would know. Her husband is from Scotland.

Nick has dragged his feet, and it has been one of the few points of contention in our marriage. While I’m thinking, “It’s inevitable, we are ALL GOING TO DIE, for *^&%’s sake,” he is not wanting to dwell on death. I do not fault him. And I certainly recognize my situation does not make things any easier.

The more I talk about it with friends, the more I realize Nick is not alone. I’ve also noticed there’s a lack of understanding around Wills. One friend, a fellow stage 4 cancer fighter told me, “I don’t need a Will, I don’t have any assets.”

She was unaware of Living Wills and Medical Powers of Attorney. In this 5-part blog series, I will address Definitions, the Medical Perspective, the Legal/Financial Perspective, Beneficiaries & Belongings, and Conversations & Resources.

I wrote this piece to educate others (and myself!) on the topic of Wills and to urge everyone to get something in place. You’ll find some resources available in my fifth installment, including incredible lawyers in Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota and England.

Bud Hammes, a medical ethicist at a La Crosse, WI hospital, sparked a movement in his town that led to 96 percent of people who die having an Advance Directive. The NPR article notes that about 30% of adults nationally have this documentation in place.

Let’s start with some definitions to clear the air.


The Will is the document that tells everyone what you want to have happen with your personal items (think personal property, real estate, all your assets and debts). If you have kids, this is where you establish your children’s guardian(s) should anything happen to you and your spouse (if you’re married). This is also where you set up what you would want to have happen with your money if you died (for example, creating a Trust for your kids).

Advance Directive

There are two types of Advance Directives: a Living Will and a Medical Power of Attorney (or Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare). These are complimentary but slightly different. Some people have one or the other or both.

Your Living Will tells your doctors and friends and family what you want to have happen for end of life care. For example, if you were to get into an accident and end up in a persistent vegetative state (life support), this outlines your intentions. If you don’t want to have artificial means prolong the dying process, you’re giving your family permission to “pull the plug.” You can specify how long (days, weeks), if at all, you would want to stay on life support. This is also where you state preferences for resuscitation (whether or not you want CPR, for example).

In the state of Colorado, you do not need a lawyer to have a Living Will. It is made legal by your signature and the signature of two witnesses. It’s important to share this with your healthcare provider(s) – if you’re me, you have more than one!

Your Medical Power of Attorney (or Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare) is who you appoint to make healthcare decisions for you if you’re no longer able to make them for yourself (for example, comatose, memory loss, brain hemorrhage). Some people select a friend or a family member in the medical profession. Some family members who tend to be emotional may find the task a huge burden. It is essential that you discuss with your appointee how you feel about end of life issues.

For me, I selected both my husband and my dad. If ever a difficult decision must be made on my behalf, I do not want either of them carrying that burden alone.

Durable Power of Attorney

Your Durable Power of Attorney is your financial power of attorney. For example, if you’re in a coma, this person can pay your bills for you. This extends beyond a health crisis. If you’re closing on a house and out of town, this person can attend the closing on your behalf. Lucky for them!


Trust is created for several different scenarios, including for kids and families. Some people choose to set up a Contingent/Testamentary Trust which is only created if needed (both parents die, for example). You do not have to fund a Contingent/Testamentary Trust up front.

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