Coming to grips with the reality of aging relatives can be particularly painful, especially if mom or dad’s mental capacity begins to dwindle. Caring for parents who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia can be physically and mentally taxing.
There are a number of legal documents that may be a part of your parents’ estate plan. These documents can help guide you while you are taking care of your loved ones.
Estate Planning Documents
When managing the affairs of a person with dementia or decreased mental capacity, there are a number of documents that will give you the rights and responsibility to care for your loved one. It’s a good idea to review these documents to understand their contents and to ask questions if there is anything that isn’t clear.
You should also keep these papers organized in a physical file folder. You should keep copies of some documents with you at all times, such as your powers of attorney and the medical living will. It may also make sense to keep a copy of them in your email or on your smartphone, in the event of an emergency.
Powers of Attorney
In these documents, your loved one, for example, appoints an agent to act on their behalf when they are no longer able to do so. (The agent then will have the authority to handle the principal’s affairs when the principal becomes incapacitated and unable to make their own financial or medical decisions).
Arizona recognizes three types of durable power of attorney documents:
- A financial power of attorney allows the agent to make financial decisions on behalf of your loved one. This includes managing the loved one’s bank account, real estate, and other financial affairs.
- A health care or medical power of attorney allows the agent to make medical decisions on behalf of the loved one. This includes the right to consent to or withhold consent to medical procedures and the ability to discuss the loved one’s health condition with doctors. Copies of this document should be on file with all doctors who treat the loved one.
- A mental health power of attorney gives the agent the right, along with mental health professionals, to determine if the loved one needs psychiatric hospitalization.
Medical Living Will
A medical living will is the legal document that allows the loved one to lay out how they want to spend the last days of their life, including whether or not they want artificial life support.
This is, in my opinion, one of the most important documents in an estate plan because it lets our loved ones know that it’s okay to let go when the time comes and it removes any guilt from the decision to remove life support.
A living trust is a legal vehicle that allows assets to be passed on to family members after someone dies while avoiding the probate process. Your parents may have set one up for the benefit of the entire family, including themselves. The named trustee will be able to utilize the funds to provide care for all beneficiaries, which can go a long way towards ensuring that your mom and dad are comfortable.
Additionally, if you are providing financial support as well as serving with Powers of Attorney for your aging parents or other people who do not have full mental capacity, you should consider creating a trust naming the person you care for as a beneficiary. Because life is unpredictable, there may come a day where you are unable to provide financial assistance for your incapacitated loved ones. After all, tomorrow you could get hit by a bus on your way to the store. Preparing a living trust is one way to ensure funds will be in place for uninterrupted care.
One of the most important things you can do to support a family member is to help them plan ahead while they still have the mental competence to make informed decisions regarding the nature of these legal documents. This is especially important if there is a history of Alzheimer’s or dementia in your family.
This sort of diagnosis may render someone incapable of making important decisions regarding their finances or health, thus incapable of signing these power of attorney documents. After someone is diagnosed with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, you may need to go through formal court-appointed guardianship proceedings, which can add additional time and expense during an already difficult time. Because the powers of attorney will go into effect when the time comes, with no additional court order, the chosen agent has the immediate ability to care for their aging parents.
I find that families are under significantly less stress after working through the paperwork because there is a plan in place for worst case scenarios. When discussing this plan, we will name primary agents and trustees, and we will also name successors if the first person selected is for some reason unwilling or unable to execute their duties.
I often meet with both the principal and their selected agent(s) and discuss everyone’s questions and concerns. Together, we go over the documents, which I present in plain English, with no complicated “legalese.”
Discussing everyone’s questions as a family gives a greater understanding of the process, and lets adult children understand how their aging parents want to be taken care of when they can no longer take of themselves. Everyone has the ability to ask questions as many times as necessary because I firmly believe that it’s vital for everyone to understand the contents of these documents. After we meet, families leave feeling confident in their choices and knowing that they will be able to care for their mom and dad as soon as help is needed.
If the task of caring for an aging relative has been put on your plate, it is important to make sure you are caring for your own mental and physical health. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you won’t be able to properly care for your mom or dad. You should remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
Finally, even if you are the primary caregiver, you should be in regular touch with your other family members. This will help you relieve stress, and will also help your family feel like they are in the loop, which can reduce the amount of disagreements.
This article does not contain legal advice or form an attorney-client relationship. It is for general information purposes only. If you have questions about planning for your family’s future or want to discuss other estate planning documents, please contact me today to set up an appointment.