When Death Comes Calling: 5 Things to Do After a Terminal Diagnosis

No one wants to think about money when they’re dying, but making some smart financial decisions at the end of your life can be a final gift to your loved ones.

My husband was only 36 when we sat in the exam room and received the bad news we knew was coming. The cancerous tumor in his esophagus had returned, and it would kill him.

“We can buy you a little more time, but that’s the best we can do. I’m sorry,” were the exact words from the oncologist.

If you’re reading this with interest, chances are you or someone you know may be grappling with a terminal diagnosis.

First, I offer you my deepest sympathies.

Second, I offer you some practical advice for dealing with the money side of death. These suggestions are based not only on my experience but also on the experiences of other widows, widowers and grieving family members who have shared their insight with me. However, because all situations are unique, please check with a financial professional or attorney to answer any questions related to your specific circumstances.

And of course, this isn’t a comprehensive list. It’s difficult to give such an immense subject proper treatment in one article. However, it’s my hope you will find these suggestions helpful as you work through the process of preparing for death.

Make a will and check account ownerships

Assuming you or your loved one is still able to make legal decisions, now is the time to make a will and assign a power of attorney if you haven’t already. Even if you’re married, don’t assume a will is not needed. Depending on your state laws, not all property may automatically transfer to a spouse, particularly if adult children or a previous spouse are involved.

If you don’t think you can afford an attorney for a will, see Money Talks News money expert Stacy Johnson’s advice on “How Do I Get a Will on the Cheap?

In my case, after consulting with an attorney, we were informed that no formal will was necessary. I was my husband’s only spouse and all of our children are minors.

Still, I wish we’d paid more attention to account details. For example, our mobile phone account was listed in his name only, which added extra hoops when it came time for me to take over after his death last May.

Double-check your beneficiaries

For one heart-pounding moment, I thought my husband had failed to name a beneficiary for his retirement account, which would have meant that money was left in limbo at a time when our family needed extra cash.

Make sure your accounts are passed on to the right people by reviewing beneficiaries for all your assets:

  • Life insurance.
  • Annuities.
  • Investment accounts, including 529 college funds.
  • Retirement funds such as 401(k)s and IRAs.
  • Savings and checking accounts.
  • Certificates of deposit.

Look for sources of cash

A terminal illness often means less income and more medical expenses. To keep the bills paid, look for ways to tap into extra cash.

Our family’s lifesaver was a living benefit from my husband’s workplace life insurance policy. We were able to receive 50 percent of his death benefit upfront, and that money not only kept the mortgage current but also gave us a cushion, allowing us to be extra generous at Christmastime and take a final family vacation.

If you don’t have a life insurance policy with a living benefit option, you may want to consider selling a second vehicle or large assets that no longer make sense for your family. In our case, we sold my husband’s work truck, motorcycle and many of his carpentry tools for extra cash. However, you or your loved one might have a boat, RV or other expensive item no one else in the family will use. Consider selling those items now rather than later.

Finally, if you are single, you may want to see about tapping into your retirement accounts. However, if you are married or have children, you may want to try to preserve that money for them and only use it as a last resort.

Apply for Social Security disability but be prepared to fill the gap

Once you or your loved one stops working, you can apply for Social Security disability benefits.

My husband’s diagnosis of esophageal cancer meant his application was fast-tracked for approval. What we didn’t realize was that immediate approval didn’t necessarily mean immediate money. As we discovered, there is a five-month waiting period from the date of the disability before benefits can begin. In addition, the date of disability is considered the day you stopped working, not the day you were diagnosed.

If your life expectancy is less than five months, it still makes sense to apply for disability if you have children or a spouse. Having an application submitted and/or approved can speed up the process of receiving survivor benefits.

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  • Nancy

    My mother was very smart about having her affairs in order when she was diagnosed with lung cancer. As modest as her estate was (her home and about $200,000 that she had inherited from her parents), she had everything already in a family trust. She was the trustee and I was successor trustee. She give me signature authority on her checking and savings, which was important when it came to paying her bills for her while she was ill. One thing did cause considerable difficulty. I needed to liquidate some of her investments in the trust to pay for daily nursing care for her at home but I couldn’t do it unless she resigned as trustee and named me instead. However, while she was competent she wouldn’t even consider doing this and later when the cancer had spread to her brain she couldn’t understand. I hated wresting control from her but it had to be done because I didn’t have the resources to pay for the care myself.

  • Robert Eisman

    I plan to get a lawyer to put my daughter on the house title so she will get it as a survivor when I die. It won’t go through probate that way. I, also, will be cremated with NO memorial service and the ashes thrown in the back yard. I have two burial plots left over from my parents but conventional burial is too expensive.

  • karik

    There Are diagnosis that don’t have time to research and then implement a healthier lifestyle and diet. The medications that you might get towards end of life are strictly life prolonging, not to be confused with life saving such as a heart transplant. I know of 2 people that had no more time than what it would take to put their house in order. One was diagnosed and dead in 6 weeks and had eaten healthy all their lives and ran marathons/ Another, gone in 12 weeks from diagnosis. It’s actually often too late if you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal disease. If you can, by all means change some things. And too, more often than not, you’re in a lot of pain towards the end especially with cancer and the only thing I would want is to be as comfortable as possible and have the end come sooner than not.

    • Brad

      I’m sorry to hear that they died and didn’t have time left to enjoy the remainder of their lives. You have the sympathy of everyone who cares about their friends and loved ones. Thank you for responding to my post.

      • karik

        Thank you so much for your condolences. I do miss these people and was very close to them. I forgot to mention the fact that I am in total agreement with your thoughts on developing a healthy lifestyle. When faced with serious health issues a few years ago, I changed my entire lifestyle and eating habits which definitely gave me my health today.

  • Sherrie Ludwig

    I am sorry for your loss. Thank you for writing this article. As my husband and I age, we note that it is important to make sure everyone is “on the same page” with all the accounts like retirement, banking,credit cards, cable, phone, insurance for life, car and home, even online stuff like Netflix, so each knows how to access these, that both of us are named, AND that some trusted somebody has access to that info in case of both of us being incapacitated, like a car accident. Good new years’ resolution, to sort that all out one afternoon instead of running around later trying to piece it all together.

  • bigpinch

    I’m sorry your wisdom was born of bitter experience but thank you for sharing it.

  • Don1357

    I was diagnosed with rheumatic fever as a young child by medical specialists confined me to my bed told my parents I would have a short life span with limited activities and time before I died. An aunt told my dad about Christian Science that she said could heal me. He was skeptical, but he got a copy of Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary baker Eddy (the church textbook) and began to read it, contacted a Christian Science practitioner who healed through prayer, and dismissed the doctors (who predicted grave consequences). Dad felt he had little to lose by taking a spiritual route–though he knew nothing about this religion. Neither Mom nor Dad had attended church for years at the time. I was perfectly well in less than a week. Mom and Dad began attending the Christian Science Church and had many healings for themselves and my little brother as a result. in my 20s I had a thorough examination for entering the advanced ROTC program that confirmed what the earlier doctors had said but concluded that I was now well and perfectly fit to go into the military program. It has been over 70 years since this took place, and I enjoyed living–have participated in multiple sports (entering in a couple while in school) and earning a black belt in karate in my 30s. Christian Science not only saved my life, but it gave me a wonderful future life by teaching me how to trust and depend on God for everything–including my complete health care without any medication or visiting a hospital (except to see friends) in all of those years. Hopefully my testimony shows that medical diagnoses don’t have to be fatal. There is an entirely different way of approaching healing, and it is wonderfully effective.

  • ann

    A better way to go is a Living Trust. That ensures your affairs are in order and your estate goes to your desginated heir with no probate or problems at all. Putting a name on a house title might cause ripples unlike the Living Trust which is completely fool proof. Also it’s a better to do this while you are healthy than wait for a terminal diagnosis. It takes all the pressure off everyone.

  • Y2KJillian

    Prearrange your final disposition.

    Check on “Biogift” which takes your body, uses it for
    medical science, and then returns the cremains to your family—all for
    Or check out local regulations on
    cremation, visit the funeral establishments and get prices. You can save a lot by making early
    arrangements, rather than having your survivors waiting until the funeral is only days away to

    • Nancy

      I registered with another service that takes whole body donations–Science Care. This means final disposition would be free, but they don’t necessarily accept every donation at the time of death. Alternatively, I looked into a small insurance policy to cover cremation/funeral costs and found it too expensive for the two of us, my husband and I. I’d rather use the money on the living such as saving for our grandchildren’s education. I also looked into prepaying for arrangements with Neptune or Trident Society. I favor that over insurance, but so far I’ve put off plunking down the approx $6,000 for the two of us. We’ve done everything else to make our dying more efficient: wills, living trust, letters of instruction, and briefing our successor trustee about everything. I found it consoling to make the final arrangements for my mom; perhaps my daughter will also.

  • El

    I wish someone would write a book (or article) that explains everything that happens when a loved one dies, including all the financial ramifications to consider. I, fortunately, have no experience with this and the thought of what to do is mind-boggling. For instance, I assume bank accounts (such as for my parents) would be frozen. I’ve heard that a police report is generated if you call 911 if you discover someone has passed, making the grief even worse as the police investigate, but I don’t know who you would call or what you would do.

    • Lorilu

      The police will respond, but you need not worry. The coroner will be called, and will ascertain the cause of death. If the decedent was ill, under a doctor’s care, and the doctor agrees as to cause of death and signs a death certificate, the deceased’s remains can often be released directly to a funeral home of your choosing. I have been there when close relatives have died suddenly at home, and the police were courteous and kind.

  • Janet Tilley Swinford Coyle

    A member of our kidney cancer online group, advised me to check for waivers, on credit cards, life insurance, etc. I discovered that many of our monthly payments could be waived, after my husband’s terminal diagnosis. One bank even canceled our outstanding debt, after 8 months of payment!

    • Lorilu

      There is also the possibility of a life insurance policy connected to your bank accounts. Unless you purchase additional insurance, the amount is usually $1,000, but the deceased might have several different accounts with such insurance. Even automobile club membership includes some life insurance.

  • Lorilu

    That is a very good point. You can keep full ownership of your accounts, however, and name your designated heir as a beneficiary by adding “in trust for (name)” to your accounts. This way, their ownership can only begin upon your death. The trust bypasses probate. This is known as a “Totten trust” should you wish to do research on it.

  • Angelo_Frank

    Hopefully all goes smoothly when I pass. I personally instructed my executor(s) to consult with an estate attorney in order to complete all the financial requirements. With multiple accounts at different financial institutions and the selling of property it can get quite overwhelming for the average person.

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