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Woman visibly stressed over her current affairs

Planning for life's most stressful events will ease your anxiety

by Tom Alberts | Senior Contributor
October 5, 2018

There are a litany of events throughout life that cause stress. The death of a spouse, divorce, marital separation, loss of freedom, death of a family member, a major personal injury or illness and marriage rank high on the list. Fortunately, there are ways to deal with these events long before they take place. There's no avoiding fate, but when you plan well in advance for life-altering and life-ending contingencies, you can have peace of mind and reduce anxiety when they happen. You can develop plans to utilize wills, trusts, powers of attorney, advance health care directives, HIPAA releases and other tools as part of a powerful arsenal to combat a host of trying situations.

The normal tribulations of life itself - sitting in traffic, going to the dentist, watching your favorite team lose - are stressful enough. And that's before life's real curveballs come our way.

We can't stop inevitable events from happening, but when they do, having a plan in place can mitigate some of the anxiety, heartache and hardships they cause.

The sources of stress are seemingly endless, but experts say certain life events are more traumatic than others. The Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale identifies 43 of the most stressful events that people endure. Not surprisingly, the majority involve issues directly related to proper life and estate planning.

Those stressful life events include overwhelming challenges that involve all aspects of our existence from health, wealth and death to love and liberty. The ranking, considered the gold standard for stress assessment, was created in 1967 by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe. The researchers ranked life's most stressful events based on a scale of severity of 1 to 100. Here are the top seven that scored 50 or above.

  1. Death of a spouse (100)
  2. Divorce (73)
  3. Marital separation from mate (65)
  4. Detention in jail or other institution (63)
  5. Death of a close family member (63)
  6. Major personal injury or illness (53)
  7. Marriage (50)

Fortunately, there are numerous strategies available to reduce the emotional burdens and financial hardships that may confront us. Planning is important because when these stressful life events occur, their impact can snowball into many new challenges. Tools that we use to prepare for life and death events - wills and trusts, powers of attorney, advance directives and beneficiary designations among them - can help you cope when those difficulties come your way. Simply having your estate plan in order can reduce the anguish during the most difficult of times.

Stressful events can change our priorities and force us to modify strategies as life goes on to create a legacy to benefit loved ones and others.

So, let's consider the list of life's top traumas and steps you can take to lighten the stress load.

Death of a spouse

It doesn't get any worse, according to the Holmes-Rahe survey, than losing the love of your life. The passing of your “other half” marks the end of your most important relationship and the beginning of new challenges. But as a younger couple, you both nominated a guardian in your last will and testament for your minor children in the event you both were to die or become incapacitated at the same time. You've created a trust to hold your assets and enable your estate to bypass the lengthy, costly and public process of probate. You've also invested in life insurance that provides liquidity to pay for funeral expenses and loss of income and helps take care of other financial needs when a spouse dies. If you are an older couple, and the surviving spouse may be incapacitated or need assistance managing their affairs, you've drafted legal documents giving power of attorney to those you trust to avoid a court-appointed guardianship and enable them to make health care and financial decisions on your behalf. Perhaps your spouse had been suffering from a terminal illness before dying. You both were able to plan ahead for this situation by creating an advance directive for health care that specified wishes for end-of-life care, such as the use of artificial life-support and certain treatments.


Aren't you glad you both agreed to that premarital agreement before taking the walk down the aisle or a postnuptial agreement shortly after? After all, divorce is the No. 2 most stressful life event. Knowing that divorce rates are in the 50% range, you took action to designate property each person acquired prior to the marriage as a nonmarital asset. That way, if the marriage were to dissolve, ownership disputes over those items can be avoided. A divorce decree does not automatically invalidate all beneficiary designations. After a divorce, you'll need to revise your estate planning documents - beyond your will and living trust - to ensure former spouses no longer have power-of-attorney authorization to make health care decisions on your behalf, handle your finances or serve as your guardian if you become incapacitated. Other revisions may be needed for your property deeds; titles to vehicles; beneficiaries for life insurance, annuities and retirement accounts; and online account usernames, passwords and contact emails.

Marital separation from mate

There's not a lot you can do to prevent the heartbreak of a troubled relationship, and many couples choose separation as an alternative to divorce, especially if there is a chance at reconciliation and children are involved. A legal separation, however, has some special estate planning considerations that should be addressed because the couple remains legally married. In a typical marriage, spouses grant each other power of attorney to make decisions on health care and finances on behalf of an incapacitated spouse. But if you are legally separated, those POA designations may not be in your best interests. You'd probably want someone else instead of an estranged spouse making medical and financial decisions for you - or serving as your guardian if you become incapacitated. Also, your will and living trust may require revision to ensure your spouse only receives the legally required spousal share and no more. Remember, couples who are married but separated cannot disinherit each other; only a divorce or prenuptial and postnuptial agreements can sever inheritance rights. The matter of custody of minor children during the separation is another major issue to address. The best option is for the couple to reach a separation agreement, otherwise they'll need to petition the court for a decision on custody. The agreement also should address responsibility for debts incurred during the separation period, the use of marital assets to pay separate expenses, insurance needs and other matters as necessary.

Detention in jail or other institution

Legal troubles and the loss of your freedom are traumatic enough, but you can minimize the negative impact on your spouse, children, yourself and others. Your will and trust may need to be updated to limit the exposure of your assets to outside claims. POA designations involving an inmate must be changed. An imprisoned spouse, for example, can't act on the other's behalf and make decisions regarding health care and finances. If you are serving as guardian, a successor will need to be appointed. If you've been nominated as a guardian, you'll need to remove yourself from that designation. If you are in line for an inheritance, it may be in your best interest to amend your status as a beneficiary. Assets inherited by an inmate could be forfeited as reimbursement for incarceration costs or to satisfy judgments. Your inheritance could be left in trust with the trustee having full discretion over its distribution. You also could request that family members designate others as heirs in your place. You'll also need to consider your status as a recipient of life insurance proceeds, payment-on-death accounts and transfer-on-death deeds.

Death of a close family member

Besides dealing with grief, the death of a beloved family member can carry extra burdens. Often, family members are given the responsibility of serving as executor of an estate or a successor trustee for deceased loved ones. The process can be less difficult if comprehensive estate planning - in which probate-avoiding trusts and beneficiary designations are carefully addressed - was completed well in advance along with funeral arrangements. The death of another family member requires that you and other loved ones review and update your own estate plans. The deceased family member, for example, could be named in beneficiary designations, as a potential guardian or power of attorney, or as a successor trustee for several people. Legal documents must be updated to reflect those changes. Another issue is privacy for the entire family. When all members plan their estates using trusts and other tools to avoid probate, they can help keep details of the entire family's financial affairs under wraps and out of the courthouse. Also, other family members, as part of their own estate planning, can consider establishing a charitable trust to honor the memory of a deceased loved one.

Major personal injury or illness

Stressed middle-aged man

The thought of a debilitating medical condition is unnerving enough. When you consider the possibility being declared incapacitated and placed in a guardianship, the specter can be terrifying. Planning for the possibility of incapacity, however, is a powerful antidote for the stress that you and your family may endure during a health crisis. A major injury or illness can happen at any time, so it's important to provide critical guidance to your loved ones ahead of time. If you don't provide a plan, your family could wind up in court seeking permission from a stranger (the judge) to have a say in how your treatment and finances are handled. Failure to plan is a key contributor to the appointment of an unknown guardian, who may not have the best intentions concerning your financial affairs, health care and freedom to make even the most basic decisions for yourself. Some key legal documents can help avoid that scenario. By utilizing a living trust, your assets can be managed by a successor trustee of your choosing - not the court's - in case of incapacity. You should also authorize a power of attorney for health care and finances to trusted representatives. Your POA for finances can handle matters outside the purview of the trust, such as paying bills and managing daily finances. The POA for health care - someone you entrust to make the right call on your behalf - is authorized to make medical decisions based on situations you can discuss and consider ahead of time and often is nominated to serve as your guardian. Another legal document to employ during this trying time is a living will, also called an advance health care directive, providing guidance on the extent of end-of-life care you wish to receive if incapacity or terminal illness strike. It's also suggested you sign a HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) waiver to enable your doctors to share medical information with the people of your choosing.


Sunset wedding photo

Although matrimony is one of life's great joys, there's plenty of stress to deal with from the moment a proposal is accepted until the honeymoon is over and life as a married couple begins. The good news is that engaging in life and estate planning can help untie those knots in your stomach and help with your pursuit of a happy life ever after. Also, planning is a great way to reduce stress caused by life's challenges and your quest to leave a legacy that benefits your spouse, family and the people and causes you care about. To develop a comprehensive plan, couples should begin with the basics, such as executing wills and creating probate-avoiding, privacy-protecting living trusts to safeguard and distribute their assets when life ends. In their wills, couples can nominate a guardian for minor children if the other parent is unable to assume that role in case of an untimely death or the onset of incapacity. Other key components are power-of-attorney designations for finances and health care. Those POA designations grant your spouse or other designated representatives immediate authority to make financial and medical decisions for you in case of incapacity. The POA for health care also should nominate potential guardians to prevent an unexpected appointment by the court. An advance health care directive, or living will, is another crucial document to spell out your preferences on end-of-life treatment limitations. A HIPAA waiver also is suggested so that you can preauthorize individuals of your choosing to discuss your medical status with health care providers.

Stressful life events come in many varieties, but they all tend to trigger a reason to create or review and update plans that address the many obstacles we encounter as the world turns. Meanwhile, other life events lower on the list can be mitigated with many of the same planning tools that have been discussed. Other quandaries may include, for example, getting fired from work; a major change in the health or behavior of family members; gaining new family members; a major business readjustment; or a son or daughter leaving home.


Stressful life events come in many varieties, but they all tend to trigger a reason to create or review and update plans that address the many obstacles we encounter as the world turns. Meanwhile, other life events lower on the list can be mitigated with many of the same planning tools that have been discussed. Other quandaries may include, for example, getting fired from work; a major change in the health or behavior of family members; gaining new family members; a major business readjustment; or a son or daughter leaving home.

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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