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Coping and planning for a terminal diagnosis: financial, legal and emotional considerations

by Legacy Plan
February 7, 2024

Receiving a terminal medical diagnosis is an immensely challenging and life-altering event, encapsulating a myriad of emotions ranging from disbelief and denial to grief and acceptance. For many, this period is marked by a profound reassessment of life's priorities and values. In the midst of grappling with emotional turmoil and complex medical treatments, the necessity of estate planning emerges as a critical, yet often overwhelming task. This crucial aspect of preparation involves a comprehensive evaluation of one's financial and legal matters, necessitating a clear-headed approach amid an emotionally charged environment. It's a process that demands not only a keen awareness of one's assets and liabilities but also the emotional fortitude to make decisions that will have lasting impacts on loved ones and beneficiaries.

The goal of this article is to navigate individuals and families through the multifaceted and sensitive process of estate planning in the wake of a terminal diagnosis. It underscores the importance of acting in a timely and thoughtful manner, ensuring that the eventual distribution of assets is in alignment with the individual's wishes and that the legal processes are seamlessly executed. Estate planning in these circumstances goes beyond mere asset allocation; it's an act of love and responsibility, a final testament to the care and thoughtfulness for those left behind.

Coming to terms with the diagnosis

The psychological journey following a terminal diagnosis is as unique as the individual experiencing it. The immediate aftermath often involves a whirlwind of emotions. Shock and denial are common initial reactions, as the mind grapples with the reality of the situation. This period can be marked by a sense of numbness or disbelief, where processing the diagnosis and its implications feels nearly impossible.

As the initial shock subsides, a complex blend of emotions, including fear, anger and grief, may surface. These feelings can significantly impact one’s ability to make clear and rational decisions, particularly those as significant as estate planning. It’s a time when the support of family, friends and professionals becomes invaluable. Seeking emotional and psychological support through counseling can provide a safe space to process these emotions. Support groups offer a sense of community and understanding, connecting individuals with others who are navigating similar challenges. They provide a platform to share experiences, fears and insights, fostering a sense of not being alone in the journey.

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Equally important is the role of family during this time. Open discussions with family members not only offer emotional support but also help in sharing the burden of decision-making. These conversations can provide clarity on the individual’s wishes and values, which is crucial for effective estate planning.

Accepting the diagnosis, while challenging, is a pivotal step in moving forward. It allows individuals to take control of their remaining time and make decisions about their legacy and the future of their loved ones. Acceptance paves the way for more pragmatic discussions about estate planning, ensuring that the individual’s final wishes are respected and honored. This acceptance doesn’t negate the emotional pain but rather acknowledges the reality of the situation, enabling a proactive approach toward planning and preparation.

Assessing your current estate plan

Upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, it becomes imperative to reassess one's existing estate plan. This critical review is more than a cursory glance; it involves a detailed examination of all components, including wills, trusts and other estate-related documents. The objective is to gauge how the recent diagnosis impacts the current arrangements. For instance, certain provisions in the will or trust might need immediate modification to reflect the current health situation and potential changes in life expectancy.

This reassessment should include a comprehensive inventory of all assets and liabilities. Real estate holdings, bank accounts, investment portfolios, retirement accounts and even personal belongings of significant value should be accounted for. Additionally, outstanding debts and obligations must be considered to ensure a clear picture of the estate's net worth. It’s essential to examine beneficiary designations on retirement accounts and insurance policies to ensure they align with the current wishes.

Changes in health status can lead to altered priorities and perspectives. What was important when the estate plan was initially created may no longer hold the same significance. This period may call for a re-evaluation of the distribution of assets, charitable bequests and the guardianship of minors or dependents.

Key considerations in estate planning after a terminal diagnosis

When revisiting estate planning following a terminal diagnosis, several key factors need careful consideration, including:

  • Legal competency. It’s critical to reassess and make decisions while still legally competent. This is especially pertinent when revising wills and trusts, as any changes made after losing legal competency could be contested or deemed invalid.

  • Powers of attorney. Establishing or updating surrogate decision-makers becomes a priority. This includes assigning a durable powers of attorney for health care decisions and financial matters and creating a living will that outlines wishes for end-of-life medical treatment in scenarios where one is unable to communicate.

  • Guardianship. For those with minor children or dependents with special needs, making arrangements for their guardianship is crucial. It might involve updating the chosen guardians or setting up trusts to manage financial provisions for their care.

  • Financial arrangements. A thorough review of financial accounts, including savings, checking, investments and insurance policies, is necessary. This review will help identify any changes needed to ensure financial stability and the appropriate transfer of assets.

  • Tax implications. Understanding the tax implications of various estate planning decisions is vital to minimize the tax burden on the estate and the heirs. This might involve strategies to reduce estate taxes, gift taxes or other financial obligations that could impact the estate's value.

Working with professionals

The complexities involved in revising an estate plan following a terminal diagnosis often necessitate the guidance of professionals. Estate planning attorneys and financial professionals become invaluable resources during this time. They can provide expert advice tailored to the unique aspects of the estate and the individual's current situation. A collaborative approach involving legal, financial and tax professionals ensures a comprehensive and cohesive estate plan that addresses all legalities and financial intricacies.

Communicating with family and heirs

Transparent communication with family members and heirs is of utmost importance. It’s beneficial to discuss the estate plan openly to avoid any surprises or misunderstandings after the individual’s passing. This conversation can also serve as an opportunity to explain the reasoning behind specific decisions, potentially preventing future disputes or conflicts among heirs. Preparing heirs for their future roles, whether as executors of the estate or guardians of minors, is essential for a smooth transition and execution of the estate plan. This communication not only facilitates practical aspects of estate execution but also helps in the emotional preparation of family members during this difficult time.

Considering legacy and philanthropy

Leaving a lasting legacy is a significant aspect of estate planning, especially after a terminal diagnosis. Many individuals find solace and purpose in the idea of contributing to the world beyond their lifetime. This can take various forms:

  • Charitable giving. This involves allocating a portion of the estate to charitable organizations or causes. It can be direct donations or through structured giving such as donor-advised funds, which allow for ongoing contributions to chosen charities.

  • Setting up foundations. For those with substantial estates, establishing a private foundation can be a way to formalize philanthropy. Foundations can support causes and initiatives important to the individual, offering a structured way to manage charitable giving and involving family members in philanthropy.

  • Creating ethical wills. Unlike traditional wills that distribute assets, ethical wills are meant to pass on values, beliefs, life lessons and personal history to future generations. They can be written documents, recorded videos or any other medium that best conveys the individual’s personal legacy.

These philanthropic actions not only ensure a lasting impact on society but also provide a sense of fulfillment and continuity for the individual.

Final arrangements

The planning of final arrangements is a key component of estate planning, particularly in the context of a terminal diagnosis. This involves:

  • Funeral planning. Deciding on the type of funeral, burial or cremation services and other ceremonial preferences. Preplanning can relieve family members of the burden of making these decisions during a time of grief.

  • Documenting end-of-life wishes. Clearly articulating preferences for end-of-life care in an advance directive. This includes decisions about life support, pain management and other medical interventions.

  • Pet care. For many, pets are considered part of the family. Including provisions for the care of pets, either through a pet trust or by designating a caregiver, ensures their well-being after the owner’s passing.

Emotional and psychological preparation for end of life

Navigating the emotional and psychological landscape of a terminal illness is challenging both for the individual and their loved ones. Developing coping mechanisms such as mindfulness, therapeutic activities or spiritual practices can provide comfort. It’s important to recognize and validate the wide range of emotions that come with a terminal diagnosis.

Accessing resources like counseling, support groups or spiritual advisors can offer solace and guidance. These resources can provide a space to process emotions and find communal support from others in similar situations.

Openly discussing the reality of the situation with family and friends can help in mutual preparation for the end-of-life stage. This includes emotional readiness, understanding the dying process and knowing what to expect in terms of health care needs and decision-making.

Engaging in legacy projects like writing letters, recording stories or creating art can be therapeutic. It offers a way to reflect on life, share memories and leave tangible pieces of oneself for loved ones.

Preparing for the end of life is a deeply personal journey. It encompasses not only practical aspects like estate planning and health care decisions but also emotional and spiritual readiness, both for the individual and their loved ones. This preparation is crucial in finding peace and acceptance in the final stages of life.


Navigating estate planning following a terminal diagnosis is an endeavor that intertwines the practicalities of financial and legal preparation with the emotional complexities of facing life's final chapter. This journey, though inherently challenging, offers a unique opportunity for individuals to reflect on their lives, reaffirm their values and leave a lasting imprint on the world and their loved ones.

Through this process, individuals have the chance to reassess and realign their estate plans to ensure they truly reflect their current wishes and circumstances. It involves not just the distribution of material assets but also the passing down of intangible legacies, such as personal values, life lessons, and cherished memories. Establishing clear health care directives, guardianship plans and philanthropic goals allows individuals to exert control and provide guidance during a time when they may feel most vulnerable.

The role of open communication in this process cannot be overstated. Honest discussions with family members and heirs not only facilitate a smoother transition and execution of the estate plan but also help in the emotional preparation of all involved. This transparency is key to minimizing potential conflicts and misunderstandings, ensuring that the individual’s final wishes are respected and honored.

Seeking the assistance of professionals in this process is also crucial. Their expertise helps navigate the complex legal and financial landscape of estate planning, providing peace of mind that all aspects have been thoroughly considered and addressed.

Furthermore, preparing for the end of life encompasses more than just practical arrangements; it's also about emotional and psychological readiness. Engaging in activities that promote legacy building, seeking emotional support and having open conversations about the end-of-life process are essential components of this preparation. They offer comfort, bring closure and help individuals and their families face what lies ahead with peace and acceptance.

Estate planning upon a terminal diagnosis is a profound and essential task, enabling individuals to take control of their legacy and providing reassurance that their wishes will be fulfilled. It is a final act of love and responsibility, ensuring that one's final days are spent with dignity and that their legacy lives on in the way they envision. This process, though rooted in practicality, is ultimately a deeply personal and meaningful expression of one's life and values.

How do I create an estate plan?

There are numerous options and scenarios to consider when developing an estate plan that protects your legacy and achieves your objectives, and important decisions should be made with the advice of qualified lawyers and financial experts. Membership with Legacy Assurance Plan provides members with valuable resources and guidance to develop comprehensive estate plans that take life's contingencies into consideration and leave a positive impact for generations to come. Legacy Assurance Plan members also receive peace of mind that a team of trusted, experienced professionals will assist them in developing legal, financial and tax strategies that will meet their needs today and for years to come through periodic reviews.

This article is published by Legacy Assurance Plan and is intended for general informational purposes only. Some information may not apply to your situation. It does not, nor is it intended, to constitute legal advice. You should consult with an attorney regarding any specific questions about probate, living probate or other estate planning matters. Legacy Assurance Plan is an estate planning services company and is not a lawyer or law firm and is not engaged in the practice of law. For more information about this and other estate planning matters visit our website at

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