Recently, I read “The Last Lecture” by Dr. Randy Pausch, a well-respected professor at Carnegie Mellon University. You might have heard about Pausch’s lecture, titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” on Oprah or YouTube. It was part of a series where top academics are asked to think deeply about what matters to them, and then give a hypothetical “final talk” about their life and legacy. Ironically, Pausch had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer prior to his lecture, making it a poignant commentary for his family, his audience and the thousands who downloaded the lecture online.
Pausch, a devoted husband and father of three young children, was at the height of his career when he was diagnosed. Before his death, he lived fully and even appeared on talk shows where he spoke frankly about preparing his family for his impending death. He addressed this taboo issue with courage and practicality, leaving audiences with the understanding that everyone dies eventually and that the important part is “what we leave behind.”
Pausch knew he would be leaving this life and took the opportunity to leave something meaningful behind. For most of us, what we leave behind will not become a bestselling book. However, a modest legacy that we can ALL leave for our loved ones is to prepare for the inevitable while we are healthy and able to make decisions for ourselves. Many times, attorneys feel like undesirables because so much of what we do is tied to conflict. Many families are torn asunder by disputes over a will, a trust, guardianships or other elder care issues while their loved ones are alive but no longer able to make their own decisions.
On the other hand, if individuals and families come to us in the preparation phase, we have the opportunity to create documents that will foster unity. Sometimes it is a simple will or power of attorney for the parents of a middle-class family, and in other cases our clients need more complex plans to include a family business or inheritances. Regardless of the situation, a little preparation can mean the difference between a family feud or an honored legacy.
While it may seem trite or self-serving, this is one area of practicing law that can be extremely satisfying to attorneys and truly beneficial to our clients. The well-crafted power of attorney and or Trust can ensure that our finances are well taken care of by the person we believe is best suited to do so (either when we are incapacitated or after we die). A health care power of attorney (often called a living will) will avoid judicial involvement in medical care and end of life decisions. The patient advocate you choose will carry out your wishes about the medical care you receive and when extraordinary efforts should cease. A Trust allows you to choose how and to whom your wealth will be distributed. These final words can let your family members know what you want and how you want it accomplished. Perhaps not the bestseller left by Dr. Randy Pausch, but a legacy, nevertheless.