We have all heard the saying, "There are two things in life that you can't avoid -- death and taxes."
It is one of those cliches repeated by cynics that has a certain ring of truth to it. By the time we have reached elder status we have participated in developing an "historical perspective" for ourselves. We have become "cultural observers" and it is in this context that the following observations are being shared.
Cultural changes in attitudes toward death and dying
In recent years there has been a dramatic change in the way we view death. Our practices have become more pragmatic and less emotional -- more willing to accept the inevitability, more willing to be involved and to plan for the last of our journeys.
The American Medical Association has recently announced a new course for doctors to help them in assisting their patients dealing with terminal illness. Doctors are more honest in sharing their prognosis with a patient. The medical community is ready with living wills and end of life directives.
It is not unusual for us to discuss together what plans we have and even write them out for our families. Financial institutions are more than ready to help us set up trusts and powers of attorney. You can even plan your funeral and pay for the expenses years ahead of the event. The popularity of cremation is a phenomena that has certainly become a part of our contemporary life style.
The customs of open caskets at the funeral and widows wearing black for six months to a year after the death of a spouse have nearly disappeared. Photo albums of the early 1900s almost always contained pictures of the deceased in their caskets at the funeral.
The advent of hospice and its palliative care for those facing the end of life has made a positive contribution to the assistance of dealing with end-of-life issues. Funerals are no longer sad and emotional but we not look at them as celebrations of life. Patients are encouraged to recognize and bring closure to any lifelong issues with friends or family members.
We are talking about the subject that in the past no one would dare to mention. There was a time not so long ago when we left the dying person alone -- we thought they wanted to "die in peace." We now know that is not true. Now patients are encouraged to share their experiences and life stories -- to be a participant in the process of their death. In the past, we used words like "tragic death," "unexpected death," "premature death."
Now we celebrate the life that was shared with us. Hospice has shown us ways to help the loved one and the caregivers. There is a wonderful quote that helps define our role in assisting the terminal patient.
"... We salute you for all you have done to surround your loved one with understanding care, to provide your loved one with comfort and calm, and to enable your loved one to leave this world with a special sense of peace and love."
"You have given your loved one one of the most wonderful, beautiful and sensitive gifts we humans are capable of, and in giving that gift have given yourself a wonderful gift as well."
In this spirit, may we all have the opportunity and strength to share this gift with our friends and families and those whose lives become a part of ours. May there be someone there if we are ever in need of this special kind of caring.
Taxes -- that other unavoidable
Come December we check the mail for the Christmas cards and messages and, of course, that large envelope from the federal government containing all the forms enabling us to make sense of our taxes. It is always a humbling experience for most of us to look at those charts. One of our major struggles is with the end-of-the-year file clean out. All those receipts and papers that we have saved for the year now stare us in the face.
Enclosed is a helpful list of guidelines from local accountant Lanny Scearcy. With his permission it is included here.
The documents are grouped according to the length of time they should be retained.
-- Throw out now: credit card receipts and credit card statements for purchases that either have no tax impact or don't represent important assets; receipts or documents relating to ownership or repair of smaller assets (such as appliances) you have disposed of, sold or given away.
-- Keep three to six years: tax related documents. We say three years because that's the general statute of limitations for assessing taxes. The limitations period is six years is there is at least a 25 percent understatement of income, so to be safe, we recommend that you keep all tax records that support deductions, W-2s, and 1900s for six years (There is no statute of limitations in the case of fraud.) In the case of records and returns relating to certain deductions, such as the IRA deduction, records should be kept indefinitely.
-- Keep Indefinitely: records relating to purchases, improvements, and tax return treatment of important assets such as real estate should be kept until the asset is sold, plus three years. This also applies to rolled-over assets.
Records relating to investments, IRAs, Keogh plans, pensions and insurance contracts should be kept until the transaction has been fully completed and/or all funds have been withdrawn (which sometimes means indefinitely). This "keep indefinitely" rule means that records of all contributions, distributions or rollover for Individual Retirement Accounts and other retirement plans should be kept, probably forever.
-- Keep Permanently: Birth certificates or adoption records, military records, marriage or divorce records, custody agreements, and proof of naturalization for naturalized citizens.
Hopefully this will guide you in dealing with that inescapable duo -- death and taxes. Blessed are the list makers for they approach each phase of life with a focus and an activity which generally leads them to action and some measure of success. Quote from Margaret Mitchell, "Death and taxes and childbirth, there is never any convenient time for any of them."
(The author is a member of the Senior Class Advisory Board.)
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