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Keeping secrets in light of terminal illnesses

There is no one way to cope with a fatal illness diagnosis; whether a person is given weeks or a few years to live, the way he or she responds is intensely personal. Some people, like iconic comedian and actor Gene Wilder, choose to keep their prognosis quiet for a number of reasons. This thoughtful article in The Washington Post examined some of the celebrities who have recently died from illnesses that were largely unknown to the public.

If you are someone who would prefer not to disclose a serious illness to those around you, you should understand that there is nothing wrong with this choice. However, be aware that when an illness is kept private, loved ones can be very surprised by a death. This shock and sudden devastation can lead to some problems in terms of administering an estate.

To begin with, it is possible that someone's feelings could be hurt by being kept in the dark. That person can end up feeling resentful and angry toward those who may have known about an illness and take it out on them in probate. He or she may challenge a will or fight to block the actions of an executor simply because he or she is upset.

If keeping your illness secret also means keeping your estate plans secret, you could be putting your loved ones in a difficult position to translate your wishes without having the opportunity to ask you questions. In these situations, you would be wise to be as clear as possible when it comes to writing a will or setting up a trust.

It can also be wise to not keep your will a secret. Informing at least one person, like your attorney or your spouse, that you have a will in place can save a lot of time and grief in the aftermath of death. Failure to disclose this information can mean that your will is never discovered or that it will be challenged quite aggressively in probate by people who may question its validity.

There is no shame in keeping a serious illness private for your sake or for the sake of your loved ones. However, there are ramifications of that decision that others will need to cope with after you are gone, so it can be wise to take some time and discuss your wishes with someone you trust.

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