Estate Planning Lessons from Grey’s Anatomy

A week or so ago the issue of estate planning came up again on the show Grey’s Anatomy.  The first incident was when Dr. Mark Sloan was in the plane crash which left him in a coma.  He had healthcare directive (in Texas we call it a Directive to Physicians and Family or Surrogates).  His directive stated that if after 30 days he had not come out of his coma, he wanted all life prolonging procedures to cease.  So, as his dutiful friends honor his wishes and let him go.

In the latest episode involving estate planning, Dr. Meredith Grey has been told she has the gene for Alzheimer’s.  She has a toddler at home and is pregnant.  She is a worried mom.  She saw how her mother having Alzheimer’s impacted her life and career.  The disease impacted the relationship she had with her mother in a negative way.  She tells her husband, Dr. Derek Shepherd, the brain surgeon, that they need to get their wills redone (as wealthy physicians, I can’t believe they haven’t done some asset protection planning).  They both survived a plane crash where Meredith lost her half sister who was named as the guardian of their toddler.  Derek thinks it is not pressing but Meredith insists.  This dynamic is so true to life.  Usually one spouse sees the need for planning but the other spouse may drag their feet.  Now, Derek is a smart guy, after all he is a brain surgeon and has a well developed understanding of the Rule “happy wife, happy life”.  He quickly gets on board with getting the planning done and calls the lawyer.

A little later they have a discussion about who will be named the new guardian of their toddler and the expected newborn.  For Meredith, it is a no brainer.  Her left hand/confidante/best friend Dr. Christina Yang is the obvious choice.  Derek on the other hand is not so sure Christina is well-suited for the job or will even want to do it.  He tells Meredith to talk to her about it.  She does and much to her dismay she discovers that Christina will not raise her kids the way she would want.  Christina’s plan is to hire nannies and let them do all the real work of parenting.  Christina really just wants to be the fun “aunt” the kids visit for 3 weeks a year who totally ruins them and tells them things their parents don’t want them to know (at least not yet), and lets’s them eat all kinds of things their parents will not let them have at home.  There are no hard feelings but now Meredith is in a bit of a pickle.  She goes back to Derek and tells him he was right about Christina.  Now she has to reconsider Derek’s sisters as options.  For some reason, Meredith doesn’t feel close to them and neither one was her first choice but she recognizes they would be good parents in the way she would want.

Finally, in a run in with each other at the nurses station, Derek tells Meredith, the lawyer said they have never done a healthcare directive.  Now, one would think that doctors of all people would have a health care directive in  place.  Apparently, these two didn’t.  Meredith state that it is obvious what she wants, “not to be a potato” and that at the first sign of forgetfulness she wants to be given a lethal dose of morphine so her children don’t have to experience what she did with her mother.  Meredith is seemingly unaware of how what she has just said disturbed Derek.  His response is that they will cross that bridge when they get to it.  But, later in the show he tells her that the decision to end her life is something he would hope they would make together.

What lessons can we glean from this Episode of Grey’s Anatomy:

1.  Unlike most Americans, these doctors had planning in place.  So, if you haven’t done any planning, now is always a good time to act.  Significant life events are usually the time when people think about planning and actually get it done.

2.  Like most Americans who have planning, Derek and Meredith hadn’t changed theirs even though there were things that had changed in their lives that impacted their estate planning.  So, make sure you review any current planning at least every other year to see if any updates need to be made.  Estate planning is not a transaction but a process that requires you to remain engaged.

3.  When selecting people to fill important roles in your plan, make sure you talk to them first to find out if it’s a responsibility they want and if they are willing to serve in the role.  When it comes to appointing guardians, make sure their parenting style is something you want your children to experience.

4.  As a t.v. doctor, Mark Sloan clearly had thought about what he wanted to have happen in the event he was comatose.  Besides getting a Directive to Physicians drawn up, sit down with your family and talk to them about what you want so they understand and will be willing to abide by your decision without a fight.  Meredith clearly had a very different view of how the decision to end her life would impact her family, particularly in this case where she was requesting that her doctor/husband give her a lethal dose of morphine to end her life.  As a doctor he might be able to fulfill this request for a stranger but as a husband, he might have a really difficult time doing that.  The bottom line is, talk to your family about your wishes.  Unless there are some very compelling reasons to do so, estate planning shouldn’t be kept a secret.

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