Financial Issues When a Family Member Is Seriously Ill

by Rick Kahler


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One of the challenges in financial planning is the strong taboo in our society against talking about money. Another powerful taboo is talking about death when someone has a serious illness.

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, for example, the focus is almost always on treatment and recovery. Rarely is there any discussion of what happens if the treatment doesn't work. There seems to be an unspoken belief that if we don't talk about it, it won't happen.

Not talking about death isn't limited to family and friends, according to Dr. Carol McClanahan, MD, CFP. In a recent presentation to financial advisors at the Insiders Forum in Phoenix, she pointed out that many doctors shy away from talking about dying until the very end.

Given this strong reluctance to talk about both money and dying, how can you work with a financial advisor to deal with the financial and emotional issues that go along with a family member's serious illness? Here are some suggestions based on Dr. McClanahan's talk.

  1. Don't expect someone facing a serious illness to give you an accurate prognosis of their disease, as they are often in denial. McClanahan suggests turning to "Dr. Google" for accurate information. Specifically, she recommends the National Institutes of Health (www.nih.gov), which has statistics on every disease imaginable.
  2. Learn to interpret what doctors say. For example, when a cancer patient is told chemotherapy has a 25% chance of working, the average patient hears "working" as "being cured." "Working" actually means there is a 25% chance of the tumor shrinking. Often the chances of being cured are far less than 25%, and the physical effects of chemotherapy can be devastating to one's remaining quality of life. McClanahan says, "Most of what we do to people at the end of life is unnecessary torture."
  3. Find out early about options for palliative care. This is multidisciplinary care focused on treating the symptoms of treatment, relieving suffering, and improving the quality of life. Because of denial and unwillingness to talk about what happens if they don't get better, many patients never get into palliative care or get into it way too late. Similarly, most patients wait too long to get into hospice care. The average time in hospice care, according to McClanahan, is just 19 days.
  4. Share your money concerns with the advisor. McClanahan says that anxiety over having enough money to pay for their care and the resulting effect on the family finances are two of the top concerns patients have. Interestingly, most financial advisors focus instead on whether advance directives, estate documents, and funeral plans are in place.
  5. Will you leave
    thousands of dollars on the table
    by taking Social Security
    at the wrong time? Find out.

  6. Call the advisor's attention to signs that a person's illness is advancing. These can include a shortened attention span, not remembering details of conversations, word-finding difficulties, inability to multitask, mental fuzziness, and depression. Ask advisors to deal with these symptoms: meet early in the day, address the most important issues first, keep meetings short, include family members as appropriate, and put action items in writing.
  7. Realize that sharing your emotions is part of financial planning. Serious illness affects people in many different ways, but the underlying concerns are always emotional. Discuss those concerns with the advisor, and work together to create a comprehensive plan addressing both death and recovery. Remember that, as McClanahan put it, "preparation for a negative outcome does not reduce the risk of cure."

The role of a financial planner is to help clients prepare for the future, including the end of life. When that future becomes "now," don't hesitate to ask for the planner's emotional support as well as financial advice.


Rick Kahler

Rick Kahler, MSFP, ChFC, CFP, is a fee-only financial planner and author. Find more information at KahlerFinancial.com. Contact him at Rick@KahlerFinancial.com or 343-1400, ext. 111.

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