What Would Happen If You Died Tomorrow?

Robert Parker, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, died April 7, he never made it to the clinic.

Robert Parker, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, died April 7. He never made it to the clinic. He died en route, in a car accident.

He may be known mostly in the surgery community and by the many students, interns and residents he mentored. But let's just stay that Rob was one of the good guys.

I am trying to make sense out of the senseless. I will let others try to figure out the meaning of this tragedy in their own way and their own words. To me, to his co-workers, to his colleagues, it is utterly irrational.

For the record, this column in no way implies that Dr. Parker's financial and legal house was not in order. This is definitely not the point, and certainly none of my business.

Could this tragedy be a wake-up call?

What if it happened to me? What if it happened to you? Most of us don’t like to think about our own death and plan for it. Turns out, we are mere mortals. So without a deadline, we tend to procrastinate, after vaguely committing ourselves to dealing with it “later.”

These suggestions apply to everybody, including the members of a veterinary clinic: veterinarians, receptionists, technicians, hospital managers, kennel workers. 

To have peace of mind, it is crucial to have the following documents:

  • A will and possibly a revocable living trust
  • A durable power of attorney covering health care and financial matters.

Depending on your personal situation, it may also be important to have the following:

  • Life insurance
  • Disability insurance (short- and long-term)
  • Long-term care insurance

Why do you need a will?  To specify who gets your stamp collection, your car and your MP3 when you die.  After the will is drafted, an executor should be named to make sure that all your wishes (financial, legal and personal) are actually carried out. 

Designating a guardian for your kids is one of the most important reasons for having a will. In the absence of a designated guardian, and in the event both parents die, a court will appoint the guardian.

A living trust may be desirable if you have assets other than those that will pass according to a contract (e.g. retirement plan, life insurance) in order to make the settlement of your estate more efficient and economical.

Don’t assume that your spouse “will get everything,” as it depends on your state of residence at the time of your death. If you don’t want your assets to be distributed by a court of law that does not take your wishes into account, then you need to have a will and a living trust.

Why would you need a durable power of attorney for healthcare? Remember Terri Schiavo?

She suffered brain damage and stayed on life support for 15 years. A legal and familial battle ensued because she did not have documents that carefully spelled out how and by whom she would like her healthcare decisions made. 

Should you be incapacitated, temporarily or permanently, a durable power of attorney designates who can make medical decisions for you, especially in particular end-of-life decisions.

Similarly, a durable power of attorney for finances allows someone to make financial decisions when you cannot, such as paying your remaining bills.

Life insurance will help defray the cost of your funeral (average tab: $6,500) and help your family live in your absence, paying the mortgage, daily expenses, kids’ education etc.

Disability insurance is often overlooked, but statistically, one third of us will end up disabled. So the question becomes: How long can you and your family survive without your income and without disability insurance?

Likewise, about one third of us will ever need long-term care insurance. Health insurance will not pay for your care in a nursing home. Some financial advisers recommend you get this insurance in your 50s.

These documents and decisions should be revisited at each major change in your family situation or that of anyone involved in the documents: death, divorce, birth.

In other words, if you don’t want your money ending up in the wrong hands–for example, with your ex– update your beneficiaries. This also applies to your checking and your savings accounts.

How do you start the process? Consider hiring an attorney with estate-planning experience.

One more thought: Did you tell every family member that you love them the last time you saw them? This may be a bizarre and possibly uncomfortable question. But I know someone who, years ago, got into a huge (read: stupid) fight with his father over the phone. One of them hung up.

The very next day, the father died of a heart attack. To this day, the son still hasn't forgiven himself.

We can't control when and how we will die. But at some point, it will happen. There is one thing we do have control over: our financial and legal situation. When you die, your family will have enough to deal with. They shouldn't have to deal with preventable chaos too.

Please make sure your financial, personal and legal house is in order.  Don't do it for yourself. Do it for the sake of those you love.

Who was Dr. Robert Parker?

Dr. Robert Parker became board-certified in 1982, meaning he lived through times of incredible progress in the veterinary surgical world.

“He was an early pioneer of total hip replacements in dogs,” notes Dan Lewis, DVM, Dipl. ACVS. Friends and colleagues describe Rob as highly respected, outgoing, supportive, positive, easy going and enthusiastic. They say “He constantly worked to keep his staff happy,” and was a gentleman who “always stood up for what was right” and “always put his people first.”

Phil Bergman, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, describes him as the “quintessential ombudsman for his department.”

Dr. Parker graduated from the University of California, Davis, in 1973, interned at Washington State University 1973-1975 and did his small-animal surgery residency at UC Davis 1975-1977. He was a professor at the University of Florida for 20 years (1977-1997), and spent a sabbatical as a visiting scholar at the University of Sydney in Australia in 1991-1992.

He then spent 10 years as the chairman of the department of surgery at the Animal Medical Center in New York City (1997-2007), working with Dr. Bergman.

At 59, instead of accepting the status quo or retiring, he took a position as chief of surgery at the Animal Emergency Clinic in Pittston, Pa., where I work one day a week. In the three months he worked there, his colleagues, his nurses and I quickly realized that he was, very simply, a great surgeon and a great guy.

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, is a small-animal board-certified surgeon at Valley Central Veterinary Referral Center in Whitehall, Pa. His website is www.DrPhilZeltzman.com

Dr. Zeltzman’s first love is surgery, but personal finance is a strong second. He enjoys writing on it as a hobby.


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