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Step #6 - Take Care of Legal Matters

GRAND magazine


Grand Magazine

Excerpt from Elder Care Made Easier: Doctor Marion’s 10 Steps to Help You Care for an Aging Loved One”

Just as you should be sure that all financial decisions are reviewed by an expert, all legal issues should be handled with the help of a trusted lawyer, accountant, or financial advisor, especially if there are complicated issues outside your scope of expertise. These issues include retirement timelines, tax advantages and disadvantages, tax planning, inheritance laws, asset protection, and federal and state financial rules and regulations. Many of the rules governing these issues fluctuate on a yearly basis and vary from state to state.

Discussing legal issues with your elder can be difficult, but you must forge ahead. Nobody likes a legal surprise, and it’s time to get everything out in the open. Be proactive and find the right expert to serve your elder’s need. The person you hire should not just be your elder’s golfing buddy. You need a professional who has the skills and knowledge required to deal with the complexity of the situation.

I was called by an elderly couple who wanted to organize their household so their children and grandchildren wouldn’t quarrel over their possessions after they had passed on. They were clear in their intent but did not know how to accomplish their goal. When I visited, I was overwhelmed by the assortment and volume of items. There wasn’t a clear space to be found on the walls, the tabletops, or any flat surface in the entire home.

This couple was terrified of losing their possessions. After prolonged discussions, they agreed to have their possessions professionally appraised, catalogued, and videotaped for inventory and insurance purposes. I heard a story about each and every “treasure.” We went over every item on their to-do list until they were satisfied. All the papers required were handled by a proper professional, and all legal papers were eventually in order. They could now discuss with everyone who was to get what when they passed on. It was a long process; but in the end, they were very comforted, since we covered every detail that they could think of.

Before you ever take your elder to a lawyer or other professional, write down your goals and objectives. Don’t use a lawyer as a think tank. Perform your due diligence before you walk into the office. Prepare a list of questions if needed, and don’t air your dirty laundry in front of an attorney. It only wastes time, brands you as a problematic client, and costs your elder money.

Understanding how you can be of assistance in meeting your elder’s legal needs goes back to good communication. You must ask your elder the serious, tough questions about what he or she wants and needs. Then, proceed accordingly. Take care of what your elder desires, not what you desire. Something I’ve observed often is that the older generation bows more regularly to authority. The baby boomers play a different game, bending authority to their will. So, often there’s a clash of values and strategies played out with legal issues. Tread carefully here, as you should not impose your value system. After all, this isn’t about you.

After going over financial and insurance details, you must collect and keep your elder’s legal papers in a safe spot. This includes birth and marriage certificates, social security information, tax records, wills and power-of-attorney documents, insurance policies, appraisals, and more. Don’t place legal documents that need to be accessible 24 hours a day in a safe deposit box or you’ll be inconvenienced on the weekend or late at night when the bank is closed.

Protect your loved one by getting everything in order expeditiously. Remember that every case is unique. There is no cookie-cutter formula to this process, but I’ve learned some tricks over my years as geriatric care manager. Guess how many of my clients have everything in order before I come on board? A mere 30 percent! There are many questions to be answered; but the moment I begin with a client, I quickly focus on the issues listed below. Follow my lead and you will be on your way to easing many legal problems. Again, I encourage you to hire a trusted lawyer, accountant, or tax professional if anything is unclear.


1. Determine all of your elder’s assets.

2. Inventory all of your elder’s valuable items.

3. Take pictures and videotapes of all valuable items.

4. If a valuable can fit in a pocket, move it out of the home and place it in storage or in a safe deposit box.

6. Execute a plan for your elder’s estate.

7. Open trusts if applicable.

8. Assign power of attorney, which gives someone else the power to act on behalf of your elder. That person is legally responsible to act in your elder’s best interests; but once in a while, this person abuses the power, so be careful who is selected.

9. Assign durable power of attorney, which authorizes someone to act in behalf of your elder if he or she becomes unable to make his or her own decisions. It differs from power of attorney in that it can be enforced even if the person becomes disabled, so abuse is more common due to the greater power transfer. Use caution!

10. Name someone as your elder’s beneficiary or his/her estate will be left to the state. Sadly, I’ve seen this happen many times, and family members can do little except deal with their shock.

Once everything is put in order, review all legal issues every five years, or more frequently if your elder has a particularly complicated situation.

A lot of us want to put our heads in the sand when it comes to legal issues, but that’s how you get burned. Face things and solve issues now so your elder can better enjoy his or her remaining time, and so you can be more at ease in your caregiving role.

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