As we put plans in place to maintain our quality of life as we age, we should also be making plans to protect our resources and our loved ones. But what happens if it is someone else who needs the protection? How can we prepare for the illness or incapacity of an adult family member? Careful estate planning and honest communication can help reduce stress on family members and help ensure that you are equipped as a caregiver.
Having Conversations with Your Family Members
If you have been trying to find the right time and place to talk to your parents about their estate plans, you may want to consider bringing the topic up during the holidays. The holiday season provides a great opportunity to discuss estate planning and preparedness, because families are gathered together, in one place, and they are typically not as distracted by work or other day-to-day obligations. With Thanksgiving and the holiday season right around the corner, now is the perfect time to start planning for this important discussion.
While it may seem awkward to initiate this kind of conversation, it is important to determine whether your parents have protections in place when it comes to their estate and their wishes regarding their health and medical care. The goal of the discussion is not to talk about who is inheriting what – it is to determine whether your parents have carefully considered what they want to have happen with their estate. You also want to make sure that they have appropriately memorialized those wishes in such documents as a will, power of attorney, and an advanced directive for health care. Knowing that your parents or family members have an estate plan in place can save you stress and frustration in an emergency.
Revisit the Topic, If Needed
If you find that your parents do not have their estate planning done, or that their documents are not up to date – do not be afraid to keep bringing up the topic or offer to help them find an attorney. Contemplating your final wishes can be uncomfortable, and many people tend to put their estate planning off.
Make Sure You Know Where the Important Documents are Kept, and What They Contain
Most people have a surplus of information (financial, medical, and legal) in multiple formats and in multiple places. You want to locate all of the important documents or files, consolidate them, and put them in order.
- Financial Documents. Look for account statements, beneficiary designations (with contact information), tax returns, and recurring bills.
- Medical Documents. Track down the Advance Directive for Health Care or Health Care Power of Attorney, insurance information, medical records, and list of current medications. If you are concerned about a family member’s mental or physical health, you can help schedule a doctor’s visit, and, with their permission, accompany them to the appointment. Bring your questions and become familiar with their medical history and current health needs.
- Legal Documents. Consolidate the power of attorney papers and any trust documents. Write lists of where the original documents are stored, who has a copy, and include the contact information for the lawyer, accountant, and estate executor.
- Online Passwords. Family members should know how to access email accounts, social media platforms, online file storage, and online banking accounts in case of an emergency. Some use an app to store all of their account identifications and passwords. Others write them down and keep the document in a safe place. People can also include language in their will that grants the executor “all of the rights, powers, and privileges that I have with respect to my digital assets.”
Once you or your loved ones have the important documents together and organized, be sure to keep the paperwork in a safe place. This could be in an office, a bank safe deposit box, with an attorney or the estate executor. No matter where you store the documents, just be sure that the designated people know where the papers are located and how to access them. By properly storing the documents today, you can help prevent emotional and financial burdens in the future.
Be Prepared to Assist
Once you have helped your family member to get organized, the next step involves helping them with any small, informal changes they may need. There is no one-size-fits-all process here. Everyone is different and has different needs. If a parent or family member is ready to hand-off some of their decision-making responsibilities, you may want to help them hire a bookkeeper, a cleaning or shopping service, or perhaps enlist a trusted friend or loved one to accompany them to important appointments. (When it comes to legal accountability, a more formal transfer arrangement is needed). Unfortunately, financial abuse of the infirm and elderly has become a growing problem, so it is best to check-in periodically to make sure the finances are being handled properly.
If given the choice, most people want to continue living in their own homes, rather than moving in with a relative or to assisted living. However, they may need help with everyday activities. In-home care agencies can send caregivers to a person’s home to help them with meals, medication, mobility, and/or finances. There are several reputable resources for help finding appropriate home care, including the National Council on Aging, National Association of Area Agencies on Aging, and the National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers, and local elder law attorneys. In-home caregivers are a wonderful option, but it also important to keep checking on your loved ones and overseeing any hired help.
Know When Guardianship is Necessary
At some point, the roles of adult and child begin to change as the younger generation becomes more involved in managing their parents’ and family members’ daily lives. Adult children help manage finances, double-check that their parents and family are going to the doctor, and that there’s plenty of food and supplies in the house. This is a natural, normal progression. But at some point, the child may have to step in and seek a guardianship for their parent or parents.
You may have noticed that a family member or loved one is having problems and might not be in good mental or physical health. If this is the case, and the person has started to lose the ability to manage daily affairs, what can you do to help? A guardian is a court-appointed individual who is responsible for the care of another person – when that person is otherwise not able to take of themselves due to age, health, or other issues. Duties and responsibilities of a guardian can include daily needs, housing, nutrition, medical care, shopping, etc. A guardian typically works in tandem with a conservator, who is a court-appointed individual responsible for managing a person’s financial needs and assets.
The optimal time to plan for incapacity is before it happens; when the individual is healthy, competent, and able to make choices about what type of care he or she wants. However, it is never too late to put a plan in place based on someone’s current needs. There is always something that can be done.
Have a Plan in Place
No one wants to consider the worst, but an estate can unravel very quickly if certain plans and provisions are not in place. Be sure to talk to your family members about what they want for their medical care and estate. Make sure you know where the important documents are stored, who are the key decisionmakers, and be prepared to help where needed. Having a plan in place means that your family members and loved ones will be mindful each other’s best interests and prepared to carry out any wishes.
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© Sarah Siedentopf and Siedentopf Law, 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Siedentopf Law and EstateLawAtlanta.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
This article was originally published in the October/November 2019 issue of The Atlanta Lawyer Magazine
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