This past February, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down sections of the Criminal Code that prohibit physician-assisted suicide (in a case called Carter v. Canada). Those sections, said a unanimous court, are contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and therefore unconstitutional. They deprive adults of their Charter right to life, liberty and security of the person. The court pronounced the provisions void after a 12-month waiting period.

The Carter decision effectively overruled a very similar 1993 Supreme Court case, Rodriguez v. B.C. It shows a new sophistication and humanity in Canadian thinking about death. Polls report that most Canadians now support the idea that someone suffering intolerably because of a grievous and irremediable medical condition should be entitled to assisted suicide, provided he or she has clearly consented to the termination of his or her life.

There has been a lot of chatter and comment about the Carter case. The decision may be important symbolically, but, as a practical matter, will have little effect. A good guess is that every year only a few will seek assisted suicide.

And Parliament will likely pass restrictive new legislation on the matter within the 12-month waiting period: the new rules are likely to impose stringent requirements and protections.

The real issue is not early death, but long life. Canadians born in 2012 have an average life expectancy of 82 years, up from 77 in 1990. Men who are 65 today will live to 84 on average, while women will live to 87. And these are just averages; many people will live to be much older. In particular, life expectancy is greater and continues to increase for members of the educated and prosperous middle-class, who guard their health more carefully.

Once there was a middle-class assumption that, in due course, children would inherit significant assets from their parents. The children would be left the old family home – a big detached house surrounded by a picket fence – or substantial proceeds from its sale. Their parents might have an investment portfolio as well, money in a savings account, a cottage in the country, a balance in a registered retirement income fund.

The old inheritance assumption had two broad implications for financial planning. Long before their parents died, children could take anticipated future wealth into account in their current way of life.

And their parents could pay for their own old age, would need professional help managing their wealth until they died, as well as guidance on how to dispose of that wealth after death. (I avoid commenting on the social justice of this much loved inheritance arrangement and the way it might have perpetuated socially damaging economic inequality.)

But now, because of the new long life delivered by the medical profession, the middle-class inheritance assumption has been upended. We all know people whose parents have lived well into their 90s in assisted-living facilities, often with additional around-the-clock private care. Arrangements like these are very expensive and the cost increases with age.

At first, aging parents spend their own money, which at the beginning seems to be quite sufficient. But death does not come quickly, and the money runs out.

Then their children, out of love or because of legal obligation, finance their parents’ continuing life, often while still supporting or assisting the next generation.

The traditional flow of wealth between generations is reversed. The effect cascades, because money you spend on your parents’ long-term care is not available later for your own; you will have to look to your own children.

These are the facts. They require a whole new approach to financial planning. The middle-aged middle class should not necessarily expect an inheritance and should husband their resources to pay for their parents’ old-age care and, eventually, their own. The elderly, if they don’t want to impoverish their children, should watch their nickels and dimes. An unintended consequence of modern medicine, and it’s not a pretty picture.

Philip Slayton is a lawyer and author, including Mighty Judgment: How the Supreme Court of Canada Runs Your Life. His latest book is Mayors Gone Bad.

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