It’s often said that nothing in life is certain, except death. While nothing can prepare a family for the emotional experience of losing a loved one, families can prepare for the legal and medical situations that happen near life’s end. This process – known as end-of-life planning – can help prevent knotty legal problems from arising during an already emotional time. End-of-life planning is particularly important for African Americans. Read on to learn about seven documents every family should prepare as their loved ones age.

End-of-Life Planning: Why African Americans Need It

Every person and family should prepare for life’s end. As people age, health care costs skyrocket. Hospitals, doctors, hospice care, and nursing homes may be necessary. Nearly one quarter of Medicaid spending goes to those in the last year of life. On average, those over age 65 spend roughly $15,000 on health care each year. Of course, these financial costs can’t calculate that emotional cost of caring for a sick parent or loved one.

While all families confront these issues, the risks are higher in the African American community. As they age, African American seniors are more likely to be in poor health than their white peers. Being in poor health increases health care costs. University of Michigan researchers found that African Americans spend $7,000 more than whites on health care in the final six months of life. Worse, because African Americans experience the onset of major diseases far earlier than whites, African American families may have to deal with poor health earlier than other families.

In light of their higher costs and poorer health, African Americans have far more reasons than other communities to engage in end-of-life planning. However, African Americans are far less likely to prepare for end-of-life matters. Whites are two times more likely than African Americans to prepare the necessary end-of-life documents. So, despite having more reasons to take action, most African American families fail to plan for life’s end. This failure means that African American families are more likely to face legal and medical hurdles that could be easily prevented.

End-of-Life Planning: Necessary Financial and Legal Documents

When the end of life nears, many legal issues arise. The following documents will help families avoid common legal obstacles.

The Document: A Will

What It Is: A will is a document that states how a person’s assets – known as the estate – should be handled after death.

Why You Need It: Wills prevent arguments and discord by clearly stating who gets what after a person’s death. Without a will, the state will make those decisions. Also, wills are a way to keep wealth within families. In fact, as this blog as often stated, the lack of estate planning is responsible for the loss of millions of dollars of African American wealth. Protect your family’s future by making a will.

The Document: Durable Power of Attorney

What It Is: A durable power of attorney allows a person to select an individual to act on her behalf. A limited power of attorney applies in only a certain set of circumstances, while a general power of attorney allows the designated person to make decisions in a wide range of business matters. A durable power of attorney remains active even if its creator later becomes unable to make decisions on her own.

Why You Need It: Life doesn’t stop for major illnesses. Businesses still need to be run, bills still need to be paid, and assets still need to be managed. Signing a power of attorney insures that business can still be conducted in the event of an illness. Without it, families may need to initiate costly and time-consuming court proceedings. Because African Americans are more likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s and dementia, African American families should make sure that their elders execute a durable power of attorney as soon as possible.

End-of-Life Planning: Necessary Medical Documents

Elderly parents and others often need critical medical care.  Keeping the following documents at hand will make doctor’s visits and medical decisions easier.

The Document: Living Will

What It Is: A living will is different from a will that leaves people property. A living will states a person’s wishes for end-of-life care. A living will might state that a person wants no drastic lifesaving measures, doesn’t want to be on life support indefinitely, or doesn’t want to be kept in a vegetative state.

Why You Need It: A living will clearly states a person’s wishes. Living wills can prevent nasty family arguments about health care. If the living will specifies that a person doesn’t wish to be kept alive, the family (along with the doctors and the courts) will honor that wish.

The Document: Healthcare Power of Attorney/Healthcare Proxy

What It Is: While a general power of attorney extends to financial matters, the healthcare power of attorney allows the family to make decisions about medical care on behalf of a loved one.

Why You Need It: As health declines, many people are unable to make decisions on their own. Signing a health care power of attorney will ensure that a trusted person is able to make important health decisions and sign medical forms.

The Document: A DNR (Do-Not-Resuscitate) or DNI (Do-Not-Intubate) Order

What It Is: DNRs and DNIs are fairly self-explanatory. They direct medical staff to avoid resuscitation or intubation even if they are able to do so.

Why You Need It: Some people want medical personnel to do everything possible to save their lives. Others may decide that they have fought the disease long enough or tired or being poked and prodded. DNRs and DNIs ensure that their wishes are respected. These forms should be given to the staff of all doctors’ offices and hospitals that the patient may visit.

End-of-Life Planning: Other Considerations

While the above documents are the most important, other documents or arrangements may help. Here are some additional items families should cover:

  • Location, Location, Location. Ask your loved one where important documents and items are located. Additionally, ask for a list of account numbers. Get passwords for online accounts.


  • Life Insurance. Life insurance policies should be purchased. If already purchased, ensure that the beneficiaries’ names and information are up-to-date and accurate.


  • Funeral Payments and Arrangements. Your loved one writes out their funeral wishes while they are still able to do so. Begin planning and paying for funeral expenses as soon as possible. Some families use life insurance funds for final expenses, while some pay ahead or use funeral insurance.


  • Organ Donation. Update your loved one’s organ donor cards. If he or she is not a donor, ask them to reconsider. According to the CDC, African Americans are more likely to need organs but less likely to donate them.


  • Digital Footprint. Social media is part of daily life. Get your loved one’s passwords and ask what should happen to the account after her death.

Though death comes for us all, planning for the ultimate event can be stressful and scary. While planning for the end may not stop it, knowing that you followed your loved one’s wishes can bring your family peace of mind. If you need help with end-of-life planning or other matters related to elder care, consult The African American Attorney Network. Use The Network’s search tool to locate an attorney near you with experience in estate planning and related issues.



Nareissa Smith, Esq. is a former law professor and a journalist who writes about racial and gender justice issues including law, health, and education. She is a graduate of Spelman College and Howard University School of Law. You can reach her at or contact her via Twitter (@NareissasNotes)