Over his long career, radio personality Casey Kasem helped Americans count down the solid gold hits. But Kasem's latter years were anything but golden. His end-of-life story offers a high profile, sad illustration of why your estate planning must focus as much on life's possible twists and turns as it does on your death. Planning for life is of particular importance if you are in a second marriage and have children from a first marriage. Obviously, that type of situation is fertile breeding ground for family disagreements about an ill loved one's care.
When Kasem died on June 15 at age 82, he was married to his second wife, Jean. Kasem also had three daughters from his first marriage. When he was diagnosed in 2007 with a rare disorder, Lewy Body dementia, Kasem signed a medical power of attorney giving authority to make his medical decisions to his children from his first marriage, not his wife. His instructions were that he did “not desire any form of life-sustaining procedures, including nutrition and hydration” if all it accomplished was “mere biological existence, devoid of cognitive function." He named his daughters from his first marriage as his health care agents, not his wife.
Kasem quickly began to decline and lost all ability to communicate. His wife and his daughters from the first marriage ended up in several court battles over his caregiving arrangements and who had the authority to make decisions. The twists and turns are too numerous to detail here, but included the children petitioning to get access to their father, who they alleged Jean was keeping them from.
As the end drew near, the children wanted Kasem to live out his final days peacefully at home, as his instructions stated. Jean objected, saying, "My husband's a fighter! He's an American treasure. He would have never, ever wanted this." The saga continued just a week few ago when Jean drove the ailing Kasem from his Santa Monica home to Washington State, without notifying the daughters. When they discovered their father was missing, they took their search to the airwaves.
While Kasem is to be commended for executing a medical power of attorney, an additional step might have allowed his family to better understand and agree on his wishes. That step? A conversation with his family gathered around so he could expand on his values and his desires, and his loved ones could ask questions of him and one another. It's a conversation no one really wants to have, but it can be a real gift for a family, especially when you think there could be friction between your spouse and children.
Kasem died in Washington on June 15, but that's not where the story ends. Apparently Jean and the children also disagree on what is to become of Kasem's body. Jean wanted him cremated; the children wanted him buried in Los Angeles. Kasem's daughter Kerri has obtained a restraining order preventing Jean from cremating the body, and her request for an autopsy is to be addressed by the court on July 25. But when Kerri contacted the Tacoma funeral home where Kasem had been taken, she learned it no longer had her father's body. Where is Kasem right now? We don't know.
Even if Kasem's body is found, don't think for a minute that is the end of this distressing family story. Kasem's estate is estimated to be around $80 million - lots more to fight over.
This type of situation happens to non-famous families, too. The stories just don't make it into the press. I encourage all my clients not only to execute a medical power of attorney that makes their wishes crystal clear, but to have "the conversation" with their family before incapacity strikes. Most people know that it's important to talk about this tough topic with their loved ones, but put it off too long. For hints on how to begin, check out the Conversation Project.