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Protecting Your Loved Ones – The Essential Checklist

by Richard Alles, Deputy Chief FDNY, Ret.

One of the most heartbreaking parts of my job is speaking with the families of FDNY members recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. I’ve had these painful conversations more times than I care to say. Difficult though they may be, I am actually grateful for the opportunity to work with the family. There are important legal matters that the member must attend to, and there is often a small window of opportunity to make sure things are in order. Too often, I have received a call from the family when it is too late – after the member has passed away, or is no longer able to address legal matters.

The guidance that I provide to members and their families during periods of crisis is good advice for all of us. There are basic things that every one of us should do to protect our loved ones.

  • Will: We all understand that a last will and testament is a document that enables us to decide who will inherit our property. It also enables us to name an executor of our estate and to plan for the needs of our minor children if we die prematurely. It is particularly important for members to recognize that some part of certain lawsuits and claims will be distributed pursuant to your will. For members, active and retired, who were exposed to 9/11 toxins and developed life-threatening illnesses, a part of the Victim Compensation Fund award your family may be entitled to will be distributed in accordance with your will. Finally, where there is a will, the court is less likely to impose restrictions on the representative of your estate, which means that your estate can generally be distributed to your loved ones more quickly. Every member, active and retired should have a will, and you should first speak with an attorney who understands the issues unique to firefighters.
  • Power of Attorney: A power of attorney enables you to appoint someone to act as your agent. The authority given to a power of attorney may be very broad or limited, and can include the power to settle claims, make gifts, handle financial and business affairs, transfer real estate, and hire professionals on your behalf. If you ever become incapacitated, your agent will have the ability to handle your affairs on your behalf. You can spare your family a lot of time and grief by having a power of attorney in place.
  • Beneficiary Forms: These must be current at all times! After 9/11, we were dismayed to discover that dozens of those who perished had neglected to update their forms and had left insurance proceeds to ex-wives and deceased parents. The named beneficiaries on file at any institution will supersede any other document that may contradict them, including a will. The beneficiary forms on file with the FDNY Pension Unit, and bank and financial investment accounts such as 457 Deferred Compensation Plan, 401Ks, IRAs, Annuities, and life insurance policies need to be kept up to date at all times. In the case of life insurance, serious problems can arise in instances where each beneficiary is not directly identified
    by name. If the beneficiary form lists a class of people as beneficiaries, you must leave no doubt about your intentions.
  • Medical Records: You should retain copies of your medical records. This is especially important for FDNY members with 9/11 exposure, because these records may be necessary to support a wrongful death claim with the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. These documents are also necessary for a spouse to file a 9/11-related pension reclassification claim with the FDNY Pension Unit or as supporting documentation for a 9/11-related administrative line-of–duty-death claim. You should know that many doctors’ offices and hospitals purge their computer systems of medical records after as short a period of time as seven years. Therefore, it is strongly recommended that FDNY members who were 9/11 “active” responders or “retiree” volunteers at Ground Zero, the Staten Island Landfill, or another location within the WTC contamination zone, maintain their own personal medical file. It should contain the documentation of all 9/11-related diagnoses, treatment and prescription history.
  • Death Certificate: This is another critically important document necessary to substantiate the cause of death for Victim Compensation Fund claims and FDNY pension purposes. When a member with documented 9/11 exposure is dying of a 9/11-related illness, it is appropriate and important to have a discussion with the attending physician. For example, a person dying as a result of cancer may finally succumb to heart failure, respiratory failure, organ failure, etc. If the attending physician is not aware of the legal issues the family is facing, they may neglect to include “as a result of cancer” on the death certificate. It is very difficult to have a death certificate amended. Associated medical documentation would have to be used, introducing delay and stress at an already stressful time.

No family will ever look forward to having this difficult conversation, yet it’s a conversation that must take place. You can take affirmative steps to protect your family’s legal and financial interests before a medical crisis strikes. One of my favorite quotes comes from my good friend, Danny Prince at the FDNY Fire Family Transport Foundation: “Prepare to prepare.” Perhaps the only thing we can truly expect is the unexpected, but you should know that our law firm is always here to help. Until the next edition please stay safe and be well.

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