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Posted March 24, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Last wishes: Classes to teach importance of planning will

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Ruth Wakeman, a social worker at Shenandoah Memorial Hospital, shows a living will power of attorney form to Teresa Funkhouser, recreation services coordinator for Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation in Edinburg. Rich Cooley/Daily

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A handout on living wills is available at Valley Health System’s area hospitals in the region. Rich Cooley/Daily


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By Linwood Outlaw III - Daily Staff Writer

loutlaw@nvdaily.com

EDINBURG -- It's the gigantic elephant in the room -- you know you have to talk about it sooner or later, but you often times avoid it.

It can be a sensitive and eerie subject, and young people simply don't feel an immediate urge to discuss it. Preparing a will or planning your own funeral aren't exactly tasks people approach with a lot of enthusiasm. But, doing so could prevent your loved ones from having to make tough choices under emotional duress. Not having a will could have serious consequences, like courts deciding how your estate will be distributed after your death.

Starting next month, the Shenandoah County Parks and Recreation Department will offer two information sessions geared toward people ages 55 and older and centered on the importance of having wills and making burial arrangements well in advance.

The classes are part of the department's "Your Last Wishes" program. The first class, to be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on April 16 at the old Edinburg Middle School at 508 Picadilly St., will provide information on living wills, donor agents, medical power of attorneys and emergency medical services.

The second class, which will begin at 7 p.m. on May 11 at the school, will discuss the cost of funerals, prepaid burials, and even tips for writing your own obituary. The classes are free, and people are being urged to register immediately as class space is limited.

"We actually ran this class last fall and we had a good response ... I think it's just important to get people to begin thinking about it. They don't have to sign their living wills that night. But, [at least] they'll have it," said Teresa Funkhouser, recreation services coordinator for the Parks and Recreation Department. "People don't always think that you can actually make your burial arrangements ahead of time so that when you pass on, you don't leave that burden on your family members to make that decision."

Nearly 60 percent of Americans do not have a will, according to a survey conducted by FindLaw.com, a popular Thomson Reuters Web site for legal information. Although more than half of Americans age 50 and older have a will, the numbers are significantly lower among young adults. Only a quarter of people between the ages of 25 and 34 have a will, compared to less than 10 percent of those ages 18 to 24, according to the survey.

Wills specify who will receive your assets and belongings after you pass away. Without one, a court determines who gets what, and who will care for your children if they are minors. In Virginia, your entire estate is typically awarded to your surviving spouse if you do not have a will. However, if you have surviving children or their descendants who are not biologically related to your spouse, they will likely divide two-thirds of your estate and your spouse will claim the remaining one-third, according to the Virginia State Bar.

Living wills, meanwhile, outline in advance your preference as to what kind of medical treatment you want to receive should you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious. Under certain conditions, according to FindLaw.com experts, a living will allows doctors to withhold or withdraw life support systems. If a patient does not have a living will, medical decisions are usually made by a spouse, guardian, health care agent or other family members. If family members and doctors cannot reach an agreement on such decisions, they can also be decided in court.

Participating in sessions like those being offered by the Parks and Recreation Department, or at least beginning the process of obtaining legal documents needed for proper estate planning, is key toward alleviating loved ones of the pressures of making difficult decisions should unforeseen circumstances occur, said Ruth Wakeman, a social worker with Shenandoah Memorial Hospital and an instructor for the "Your Last Wishes" course.

"It's a good idea. I mean, anyone ages 18 and older is not too young to begin doing that," Wakeman said. "It's always better to have it in writing so that you can have a chance to talk with your family so they know what your wishes are. It takes an awful load off families if they do know in advance what your wishes are. A lot of times, when families have to get together and decide things, they would not have necessarily chosen what the person would have wanted."

People must make sure their wills meet specific legal requirements, which could vary depending on which state you live in. "State by state, you need to be aware. Do they meet Virginia standards is the question. Plus, wills really should be notarized," Wakeman said.

Additionally, living wills should specify things such as whether you want doctors to perform sufficient life-saving measures or if you want pain medication. The original copy of a will should always be kept in a safe place, Wakeman said. If state law permits, people can request to sign several copies, though they must remember to destroy all originals and copies should they make any changes to the document, according to FindLaw.com. Wills may also have to be updated should you move to another state with different requirements.

The key, Wakeman says, is good communication.

"It's important to have good family discussions. I can't stress that often enough," she said.

For more information on the "Your Last Wishes" information sessions or to register, call 984-3030.

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