The toughest decision

Business owners should discuss end of life wishes with family

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Some years ago, my father was struck by a devastating illness that infected his spine. Faced with a 40 percent chance Dad would not survive surgery, I was faced with an even tougher decision— my father’s “Do Not Resuscitate” order.

He had worked this out with his family doctor and my mother years before anything was wrong. And now here I was, on the precipice of allowing that order to go through in the event of a code in the operating room, or countermanding that order and living with the consequences.

Dad was in his early 60s, was full of life and energy, and I simply could not allow his order to stand if for some reason a momentary problem arose during the surgery. I countermanded his order.

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The epilogue is that it turned out okay. No code occurred and the DNR order never came into play. My decision was never tested, but I often wonder: If it were, would this decision have been the correct one?

I have raised that issue with my parents now, in better times, looking for a sense of direction and perhaps affirmation that my decision was the correct one for the moment. People do not like to confront their own mortality, and I am not sure I ever received the indication I was looking for, but my dad’s continued presence is enough validation that the right decision was made.

Take this circumstance now and complicate it with a family business. The father and son work together and an unexpected illness forces a tough decision. If a DNR order is in place and the son allows it to stand, he opens himself up to criticism that he allowed something to happen to Dad due to greed. If the DNR order is countermanded and dad does not come out well and remains in a vegetative state, this is exactly what the father did not want and could adversely affect the business and the family holdings going forward.

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At the Family Business Legacy Institute, we recommend communication—the earlier and the more detailed, the better. Can every circumstance be thought about? Yes, with time and the proper guidance. That is why we work with a team approach of financial services providers, lawyers, accountants and others for a holistic to making these decisions. Even the faith dimension must be accounted for in making the right decision for the patient—the business owner.

Too many families have been torn asunder because people do not have the tough discussions early enough. Will that make is easy? No! Talking about death and dying is never easy. But you have made tough decisions all along, so why now eschew making the tough call?

As an only child, I am blessed to not have the sibling Monday morning quarterbacking that potentially goes on with such situations. But being the only child also puts all the pressure on you. There is no discussion with the family, because you are the family. As a business owner, you owe it to your family to have these discussions, and I challenge you to lead them. Your next-in-line is likely not comfortable in bringing up this topic. If multiple children are involved with the business, you owe it to all of them to have an open and frank discussion with the entire group. Don’t leave your heir apparent with the difficult task of explaining to distraught siblings why no effort was made to save their beloved parent.

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I suspect some of you reading this article are second-guessing my decision. That is your right, but I exercised mine. It was right for me and for the family at the time. Circumstances change, even if the love for a family member doesn’t, and God willing, I won’t need to make that decision again.

The emotions surrounding the illness of a loved one are difficult enough, but when compounded by the fact that this person is also your business partner and patriarch, that raises the stakes significantly. Leaving a financial legacy is one reason people start family businesses in the first place.

Don’t leave your family with an emotional legacy that no family or all the finances in the world would be able to overcome. 

-David Borst, Ed.D., is executive director and chief operating officer of the Family Business Legacy Institute, a regional resource hub for family business. He can be reached at

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