How terminal illness can get you into debt

A terminal diagnosis is a moment that everybody dreads.

Sitting in your doctor’s office and being told that there is nothing more that can be done to help you get better is terrifying and confusing.

But, while you may feel like your world has stopped, the menial day-to-day tasks in your life do not.

Things like work and money still need to be dealt with, which is understandably difficult given the situation.

No employer should expect you to do anything you’re not comfortable with, and thankfully employment laws mean reasonable adjustments are made and you can’t be fired for your illness.

If you do have a terminal illness, it is likely at some point that you’ll have to stop working.

That can be financially difficult for many, with the general cost of living (or fulfilling last wishes) leaving people in debt.

While debt won’t officially be passed on to your loved ones after you die, your estate will be used to pay back what you owe. So, if you have a house or money that you planned to pass on, these could go to your creditors rather than those in your will.

It’s a situation few prepare for, but three quarters of the people who die in the UK every year are expected (in that there will already be a severe, progressive, or terminal condition).

There are many variables that can affect whether you may be forced to turn to credit to get by, including whether you’re eligible for Universal Credit, whether you have savings, and how long you have left to live – as well as whether you exceed a timeframe given to you by medical professionals.

Grace Brownfield, Senior Public Policy Advocate at StepChange Debt Charity, told ‘We know from our work with people in financial difficulty that when these sort of major life shocks hit, many people don’t have a safety net to fall back on.

‘This means they may have to resort to borrowing to cover their basic costs, or struggle to keep up with existing credit commitments and bills, causing them to fall into debt.

‘Our research from 2018 found that over three quarters (77%) of clients we helped who had a terminal illness said this was the main reason for their debt.’

Typical costs associated with terminal illness are general household bills that mightn’t be able to be paid through wages as normal, as well as extras associated with palliative healthcare.

People may need adapted cars, extra heating or paid help around the home or garden. They may also feel the pinch of hospital parking fees, or a friend or family member may have to miss or give up work to care for them, which means loss of income.

Macmillan Cancer Support estimates that the additional cost of living with cancer is £540 per month, while the Extra Costs Commission estimates that someone with a disability will spend on average almost £200 a week more than average.

Add to this the fact that – when it comes to a terminal diagnosis – people may begin spending on planning their funeral or planning ‘bucket list’ items, and that cost only grows.

Dr Moira Fraser-Pearce, Director of Policy, Campaigns and Influence at Macmillan Cancer Support, tells ‘A cancer diagnosis can turn someone’s life upside down in a single moment, and the last thing people should be worrying about is how they’re going to pay their bills or put food on the table. But the financial impact of a cancer diagnosis can be crippling.

‘This is often due to lost income – as treatment and side effects can impact on someone’s ability to work – and people also find themselves with lots of extra outgoings, such as increased household bills as people feel the cold more after treatment or the additional expense of travelling to hospital appointments.

‘Macmillan’s Financial Guidance Team and Welfare Rights experts hear from people every day who are struggling with these issues. Many people are also left waiting weeks to receive the benefits they are entitled to, or facing charges from their banks (for missing mortgage or credit card payments or being overdrawn). This can make matters even worse.’

Citizens Advice report that nearly three quarters of their debt clients say they felt anxious or stressed because of their debts. This should not be a problem for people already dealing with so much.

It’s a harrowing state of affairs.

Thankfully, however, there are a number of schemes out there to help ease the financial burden in this tumultuous time and ensure people aren’t finding themselves in debt due to their health.

If you have a terminal illness and are worried about debt

StepChange provide free advice through their website (and over the phone on 0800 138 1111) and are partnered with charities like Macmillan so you can be signposted to the right money advice.

They say that ‘in the case of a terminal illness, creditors may be willing to write off debts,’ in certain circumstances and if you have medical records to prove your diagnosis is terminal.

‘Some charities may offer grants to help people cope with the costs of a terminal illness,’ continues Grace Brownfield.

‘Turn 2 Us offer a grant search service to help you check if there are any charities or funds who may be able to help with one-off costs.

‘Depending on the situation and who your supplier is, people who are terminally ill may also be able to get support from their energy or water supplier, so it is worth speaking to them about your circumstances too.’

There will always be someone to help you through this difficult time, and if you do find yourself in debt (as in any case) you shouldn’t bury your head in the sand, as solutions are available to alleviate stress on you.

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