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

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My husband was only 36 when we sat in the exam room and received the bad news we already 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 those of other widows, widowers and grieving family members who have shared their insight with me. However, since 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 be automatically transferred 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 get 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 already submitted and/or approved can speed up the process of receiving survivor benefits.

Be smart about spending

I must say that I have come to despise Tim McGraw’s song “Live Like You Were Dying.” That’s largely because, in my experience, people who are dying aren’t going to go rocky mountain climbing or skydiving or bull riding. The harsh reality is dying leaves many people too exhausted to walk up the stairs, let alone up a mountain.

Why do I share this depressing fact? Because I want to encourage you to be smart about how you spend your money during these last weeks, months or even years.

You may feel desperate to take that bucket-list trip to Hawaii or a world cruise, but be realistic about whether you are up for the adventure. At the very least, consider buying travel insurance in case you need to cancel.

For our last hurrah, we took the kids on a train trip to Chicago for a weekend. It was a low-key affair that involved a few trips to museums and lots of downtime in the hotel room. It was also timed to coincide with when my husband was off chemo and the side effects were out of his system. To both our surprise, the vacation still wiped him out and if we had planned anything longer, we certainly would have had to go home earlier.

Death makes us want to squeeze in a lot of living in a short period of time, but long after you are gone, your family will be left to pay the bills. So go ahead and splurge as you’re able but be sure you aren’t taking your family into debt and that you’re leaving enough behind to, at the very least, pay for your final expenses.

When you or the one you love is dying, you don’t want money to be the most important consideration. However, it most certainly can’t be ignored either. Hold your loved ones close and tell them how much you care. Then, follow up by making some smart money decisions that leave them with one less thing to worry about after you depart this world.

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Comments & discussion

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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.