The Maryland State Department of Health recently announced funding for the Maryland Faith Health Network, a pilot project between 70 congregations in the northwest Baltimore metro region, LifeBridge Health and the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative Education Fund.

The funding is being used to educate faith communities about end-of-life planning. This program is in place because more Marylanders need to discuss and finalize important documents that will help prepare them and their loved ones – emotionally and financially – for the end.

Bishop Douglas Miles, of Koinonia Baptist Church (left), and Susan Francis, Esq. (right) of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS). (Courtesy Photos)

Death. Life. New hope. As a faith leader and a caregiver, I have sat at the bedside of people I love in their final moments. I have stayed by the bedside with grieving families. I know, personally and professionally, that while loss of a loved one is never easy, the greatest act of love one can do for their family is to ease their pain by making their medical wishes known in an advance health care directive.

I have seen families torn apart in desperate attempts to discern what kind of care their loved one should receive or who should inherit what. Fortunately, I’ve also witnessed families support one another and become closer through knowing that they are making decisions for their incapacitated loved one in accordance to the person’s values, priorities and religious beliefs.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus urges his followers to live their lives in constant readiness for the coming of the Lord.  This passage focuses on spiritual readiness, but can also encourage us to see the truth and importance of having our affairs in order at anytime – not just if we get sick, not just waiting until we are old, not waiting or delaying that which we know we need to do today. Talk to your faith leader. Talk to a lawyer. Get your affairs in order. If not for you and your readiness for that glory day, then for those who follow you. Through your passing, you can bring your family together to remember you with the blessed assurance that they honored your life and passing according to your wishes.

Like Bishop Miles, I have also seen families struggle to make difficult decisions. Without end-of-life planning materials in place, families are often left with a heavy heart and more work. There are three documents Marylanders should have in place to ensure they are taken care of in life and death – advance health care directive, financial power of attorney and a will. Each document serves its own important role.

There are a lot of myths around planning for the future. One is that this kind of planning is just for the wealthy. In reality, it is critically important for low and middle-income families to do advanced planning. For example, it can truly make all the difference between keeping a home in the family, or losing it through foreclosure or tax sale. When someone passes, and other family members are living in that home, they may lose access to the Homeowner’s Property Tax Credit and see their property taxes increase significantly, they lose eligibility for the Baltimore City water credits and no longer qualify for any home repair programs. In order to transfer the home into their name, opening an estate can cost between $400-500 (or more) and the process can take nearly a year to complete.

Many people believe if they tell a family member their wishes or write them down, that they have taken care of their wishes. In reality, these documents aren’t legally valid. For example, a handwritten will isn’t accepted as a legal will. Even a copy of a will isn’t sufficient, only the original version of the will meets the requirement.

The best course of action is to get help from an attorney to prepare the three legally binding forms. There are legal services organizations, like my own, the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS), which will provide this service at no cost to low-income individuals.

The forms aren’t nearly as complicated as one might think. You have to identify who would make medical decisions for you, who could handle your finances (like bill paying and depositing checks) and for your will, who will oversee the will process, and how your belongings will be distributed.

As you gather with your loved ones for the upcoming holidays, take our advice – talk with your family and get your affairs in order now. Unexpected things happen in life all the time. Take the few minutes to plan now so you and your family are protected.

Bishop Douglas Miles, of Koinonia Baptist Church in Baltimore, is a member of the Maryland Faith Health Network. Susan Francis, Esq. is deputy director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS).