Jul 20, 2014

Casey Kasem: America's Top 40 host's final countdown

Over his long career, radio personality Casey Kasem helped Americans count down the the solid gold hits. Unfortunately, Kasem's latter years were anything but golden. His end-of-life story offers a high profile, sad illustration of why your estate planning should focus on the twists and turns that may occur during your lifetime - not just on what happens after you're gone. Planning for life is of particular importance if you are in a second marriage and have children from a first marriage; that situation is often a fertile breeding ground for family disagreements over how to care for a disabled loved one.

When Kasem died on June 15 at age 82, he was married to his second wife, Jean, 60. Kasem also had three children from his first marriage. After being diagnosed in 2007 with Lewy body dementia, Kasem signed a health care power of attorney that gave his children from his first marriage, not his wife, the authority to make his health care decisions. He stated 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." 

Kasem quickly declined and lost the ability to communicate. Family turmoil ensued. His wife, and his children from his first marriage, became embroiled in a series of court battles regarding caregiving arrangements and who had the authority to make Kasem's decisions. At one point the children even alleged that Jean was preventing them from visiting their father.

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." In June, without notifying the children, Jean removed Kasem from his Santa Monica home and drove him to Washington State. When they discovered their father was missing, they took their search to the airwaves.

Kasem died in Washington on June 15. His body was taken to a Tacoma funeral home. That's not where the story ends, though. Apparently Jean and the children also disagreed on what to do with the body. Jean said she wanted Kasem cremated; the children want their father buried in Los Angeles, and now, also want an autopsy conducted to determine whether he was physically abused. On June 16 Kasem's daughter Kerri obtained a restraining order from a Washington court preventing Jean from cremating the body or removing it from the funeral home. But when Kerri called the funeral home, she was told the body had already been taken from the premises.

Where is Kasem right now? The children believe that Jean took his body to Montreal, where they suspect she has a boyfriend. The Santa Monica police department is investigating.

If and when Kasem's body is found, don't think for a minute that is the end of the saga. Kasem's estate is estimated to be worth about $80 million. That's eighty million more reasons for the family to fight on. Daughter Kerri Kasem says she will not contest the estate -- unless Kasem signed a will or other document when incapacitated, or Jean somehow manipulated his will.

Bizarre situations like this happen in non-famous families, too; the stories just don't make it into the press. I encourage everyone to establish a well-crafted, crystal-clear estate plan that covers both death and life. A health care power of attorney is essential. While Kasem is to be commended for executing one, he might have spared his family grief with an additional step: A conversation with his family to fully explain his values and wishes, and answer their questions. It's a conversation no one really wants to have, but it can be a real gift to your family, especially when future friction seems likely. Most people know that it's important to talk about these sensitive issues before incapacity strikes. But most put it off until it's too late. For hints on how to approach the subject with your family, check out the Conversation Project.

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