Planning ahead

Thursday 1 December, 2016

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On this page: Advance care planning | Preparing legal documents | Dealing with bills and debts | Planning your funeral | Key points


It can be daunting to organise your personal, financial and legal affairs, collect all the paperwork and make decisions, such as writing your will or choosing the type of funeral you would like. However, getting your affairs in order can bring a sense of relief and can allow you to focus on treatment and living.

This section explains the practical, medical and legal issues to consider at this time.

Organising your paperwork

It’s helpful to have all of your paperwork up to date and in one place. This will make it easier if a family member has to help you with financial and legal matters.

Important documents to get together might include:

Discuss your legal arrangements with your family, and let someone know how to contact your lawyer.

Advance care planning

It can be a good idea to plan for your future medical care, and to discuss your wishes with your family, friends and health care team. This process is called advance care planning, and it can be started at any stage. It enables you to outline your future wishes for health care if you become unable to communicate later.

Advance care planning doesn’t mean that you have given up or will die soon – many people review their wishes from time to time.

Studies conducted in a range of health care settings suggest that advance care planning can improve individual and family satisfaction with care, reduce the number of people transferred from nursing homes to hospitals, and reduce stress, anxiety and depression in surviving relatives.

As part of your advance care planning, you may appoint a substitute decision-maker or record your wishes in an advance care directive. You can make the advance care documents as simple or as detailed as you like. If you have religious, spiritual or cultural beliefs that may affect your health care decisions, you can record these in your advance care documents. You need to be an adult and have capacity to complete advance care documents.

Each state or territory has different laws about advance care directives and substitute decision-makers. To find out more, visit Palliative Care Australia or Advance Care Planning Australia.

Steps to advance care planning
Talk to others

Talk to your family, close friends and carers about what you want or don’t want if you are unable to make your own medical decisions.

  • Use Palliative Care Australia’s discussion starter to reflect on your preferences and discuss these with family and friends.
Record your wishes

Record your wishes in an advance care planning document. Include the following details:

  • The names and contact details of people who can speak on your behalf if you are unable to. This person is known as your substitute decision-maker.
  • A description of the care that would and would not be acceptable to you.
  • An outline of treatments or services that you do or do not want.
  • A signature and date. Have the document witnessed.
Make copies

Make copies of your advance care documents and share them with your GP, oncologist, substitute decision-maker, solicitor and a family member or friend.

  • Ask your doctor or hospital to place the plan on your medical record. You can save it online at My Health Record.
  • Review the documents regularly and update them whenever your wishes change.

For more information see our advance care planning webinars.

Preparing legal documents

If you have not already done so, now is the time to think about making a will, appointing a substitute decision-maker, and preparing an advance care directive.

For any of these documents to be legally binding, you need to have capacity at the time of signing the document. Having capacity means you are able to understand the choices that are available and the consequences of your decisions, and are able to communicate your choices. For more information, talk to your doctor and lawyer.

Making a will

A will is a document that records who you would like to receive your assets (estate) after you die. It can also record your wishes regarding guardianship plans for any children.

Making a will is not difficult but it needs to be prepared and written in the right way to be legally valid. A will should be reviewed and updated as circumstances change. It is best to ask a lawyer to help you or contact the Public Trustee in your state or territory.

When you die without a will, you are said to die intestate. Your assets are distributed to family members according to a formula provided by the law. Although any will can be challenged in court, having a valid will usually means your assets will go to the people of your choice, avoids extra expenses, and simplifies the process for your family.

Appointing a substitute decision-maker

You can appoint someone to make decisions for you if at some point in the future you’re not able to make them yourself. These can include decisions about your finances, property, medical care and lifestyle. This person, called a substitute decision-maker, should be someone you trust or who understands your values and wishes for future care.

Depending on which state or territory you live in, the documents used to appoint a substitute decision-maker may be known as an enduring power of attorney, enduring power of guardianship, or appointment of enduring guardian.

Advance care directive

You can record your wishes for your future medical care in an advance care directive, commonly known as a ‘living will’. In some states and territories, the advance care directive has a different name, such as health direction, advanced personal plan, advance health directive, or refusal of treatment certificate. This document may not always be legally binding, but it does provide a record of your wishes for doctors, family and carers to consider.

For more information, read Cancer Council’s Getting your affairs in order fact sheet or call 13 11 20.

Legal advice is also recommended. You can start by contacting Cancer Council’s Legal and Financial Referral Service on 13 11 20.

Dealing with bills and debts

Depending on your circumstances, you may need to consider ways to manage the financial impact of advanced cancer. If you are having difficulty paying your utility bills, such as electricity, gas, water, phone or internet, contact your provider. You may be able to access flexible payment arrangements, discounts, rebates or concessions. Check with the hospital social worker whether other options are available in your state or territory.

Accessing superannuation early

In Australia, you need to be at least 55 years old and retired before you are allowed to access your superannuation (super). However, you can apply to access your superannuation early under particular circumstances, such as if you need to pay for medical treatment, are facing severe financial hardship, or are diagnosed with a terminal illness.

To access super early, you will need to apply to the Department of Human Services, or directly with your super fund. You may need to provide supporting documentation. Call 13 11 20 to speak to Cancer Council’s Legal and Financial Referral Service for more information.

This is only an introduction to these topics. See Cancer and Your Finances for more detailed information, and there are also fact sheets on superannuation, insurance, debts and funerals available.

Insurance

People often don’t realise that they have insurance attached to their superannuation. Many funds offer insurance by default. Common types of insurance provided through superannuation funds can include income protection, total and permanent disability and life insurance (may be called death cover).

To find out whether you’re eligible to access cover through superannuation insurance or how accessing your super early will affect your insurance entitlements, talk to your insurer or to a financial planner.

Planning your funeral

Some people may find planning their own funeral difficult, while others feel comforted knowing that it will be carried out according to their wishes and that their family and friends won’t have to guess what they would have wanted. Still others think funerals are for the family, and should be organised by them.

Planning your funeral can be as simple as discussing your wishes with your family and friends, or you can lodge a plan with a funeral director of your choice or record them in your will. The executor should follow the directions in your will, but is not bound to do so. You can personalise your funeral to suit your cultural or spiritual beliefs. You may have just a few simple requests for music you want played or poems you’d like read, or you may have ideas for the full service. You can also choose not to have a funeral at all or to have a non-traditional event such as a celebration of life. If you change your mind, you can alter these arrangements at any time.

If you feel you need to make preparations but you can’t do all the work, or prefer not to, talk to a social worker or pastoral carer, who can help you work out the options.

To prearrange or prepay a funeral, talk to a funeral director. You can download a pre-planning information form from the Australian Funeral Directors Association website or Funeral Directors Australia. It’s important to let your family know of any arrangements you have made. Copies of a prepaid funeral contract should be provided to members of the family or filed with your will.

If you would like to know more about the practical and emotional aspects of dying, see our Facing End of Life guide for people dying with cancer, their family and friends or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

"I’m planning my funeral to have the music that has been a special part of my life." – John

Key points

  • Organising your personal, financial and legal affairs can be hard, but it may also bring a sense of relief and allow you to focus on treatment and living.
  • It’s helpful to update all your important documents and to keep them in one place. This will make it easier if a family member has to help you with financial and legal matters.
  • You may want to think about your wishes for future health care and discuss these with others. This is called advance care planning. Use Palliative Care Australia’s discussion starter to plan ahead.
  • A will is a document setting out whom you would like to receive your assets after you die.
  • A substitute decision-maker is someone you appoint to make decisions for you if at some point in the future you are unable to make them for yourself.
  • An advance care directive records your wishes for your future health care. You can ask your doctor or the hospital to place a copy of the directive on your medical record. You can also save it online at My Health Record.
  • If cancer causes financial issues, you may consider accessing your superannuation or claiming on insurance policies that are attached to your superannuation account.
  • If you are having trouble paying your utility bills or are struggling with other debts, talk to your service provider or lender about your situation.
  • Planning your funeral may be difficult, but is an opportunity to personalise the occasion.

Reviewed by: Dr Maria Ftanou, Lead Clinical Psychologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and Research Fellow, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne, VIC; Dr Kathryn Dwan, Senior Policy Officer, Palliative Care Australia; Alison Hocking, President-Elect, Oncology Social Work Australia, VIC; Philippa Kirkpatrick, National Policy Manager, Palliative Care Australia; Prof Liz Lobb, Professor of Palliative Care (Allied Health), Calvary Health Care, Kogarah, NSW; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Hamish Park, Consumer.