Five documents you need as you age
As an “elder law” attorney, I help people protect themselves, and their loved ones, from the curveballs that life throws us as we age, get sick, or become incapacitated.
“Elder Law” is a slight misnomer, while most of my clients are over 65, a few even over 100, we help anyone who is over 18 years old because life events can come at any age. Many of the families that I work with weren’t even aware this type of planning was available before they found out how necessary it is. Often, I am asked, “Why haven’t I heard of this before?” Unfortunately, most people don’t know what they should, or even could, do to protect themselves, and their aging loved ones, and just don’t want to think about how scary some of the realities are, like of the people that reach 65 years old nearly 70 percent will need long-term care before they die. For perspective, almost everyone has heard of a will, but nearly 60 percent of adults in the U.S. don’t have one. Including a will, there are five legal documents that help provide peace of mind that you have done the planning necessary to protect yourself and your loved ones as you age.
One of the most important legal documents that you can have during your lifetime is a Durable Financial Power of Attorney. A DPOA allows for you to grant someone, your agent, the authority to act on your behalf in matters that involve contracts, like your utilities, or finances, like your bank accounts and investments. Many couples believe all of their accounts are joint but forget that being a beneficiary on an account, especially something like an IRA or other qualified funds, doesn’t allow your spouse to access the money for you if you become unable to do so. An added benefit of the DPOA is it can also allow for liability protection for the agent while they act on your behalf, so someone like your spouse or child doesn’t end up being liable for your hospital bills when you can’t sign forms yourself.
The ability to make choices over our body is one right that all of us hold very dearly. Losing autonomy is one of our greatest fears as we grow older. An Advanced Directive for Healthcare allows us to nominate someone that we love and understands our wants and preferences to make medical decisions, if we are no longer able to communicate our wishes ourselves. There is some confusion about this legal document because many times seniors are afraid that if they execute an advanced directive their children can “put them in a home,” that is far from the truth. While you are able to make your own decisions, this document doesn’t transfer the authority away from you to do so.
Many of us already have this document in place and don’t realize it, it is included in the big stack of forms we get when we go to a new doctor. Unfortunately, most of us don’t fill it out fully, we need to put a complete list of the people we want to have access to view our medical records and speak with our doctors. A universal one also allows for you to use it outside of your current doctor network without hassle. With doctors getting busier and busier sometimes we feel like they use the lack of this document to push off having to speak with our family members that are trying to help us better understand our prognosis, having a release of medical information document lets us move pass that hurdle to help our loved ones.
There is confusion about a living will and a Do Not Resuscitate order. A living will allows you to make the decision in advance, to take the burden off of a loved one or court having to make the decision for you later, about your choice to have life sustaining treatment (feeding tube, vent tube, artificial lung, etc.) continue if you become medically ill to the point it is irreversible and terminal. A DNR is different, it is a prescriptive order from your physician that states that you don’t want to be resuscitated if you have a major health event, and this prevents things like CPR and defibrillator paddles being used to restart your heart.
A Last Will, helps you designate where your belongings and assets will be distributed when you die. Most people misunderstand that a will skips probate court, this is not correct, you cannot just walk into the bank or your parent’s financial adviser after their passing and get your inheritance. Even with a will the probate process is still required to determine where singularly titled assets without a beneficiary designation will go.
Bonus: A properly funded trust agreement — Many people have a desire to avoid probate to add some simplicity and ease to the process of transferring assets when they die. Probate is not a hard process as long as everyone agrees and cooperates, but it is still extra stress during an already stressful time when you are grieving. Additionally, certain types of trusts can help shield assets from long term care costs so that there is more left over to pass on your legacy.
I hope these tips help you protect yourself and the ones you love!
Cindy Nelson is an attorney with Nelson Elder Care Law, LLC in Woodstock. She specializes in
advocacy for seniors.