Legal Issues in Eldercare: Tips for Planning Ahead

When older relatives begin to need more assistance, we often think of practical, day-to-day matters first. How can we make sure that Dad’s medication is taken correctly? Can I take off work to get Mom to the doctor, or do we need to look into other transportation options? Is it okay to leave my spouse alone for short periods, or has his dementia progressed to the point where I need to bring in some outside help?

These are all valid questions that need to be addressed right away to ensure the safety and well-being of our loved ones. But there is another area of eldercare that caregivers need to address that often goes unnoticed until health issues become more serious: legal planning.

(c) U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services

(c) U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services

“Ugh,” you might be thinking, and this is understandable. Handling the legal affairs of a family member is not usually something we imagined having to do when we became caregivers. Yet making sure that legal plans are up-to-date and in place can make a world of difference when it becomes necessary to make decisions about health care or finances.

Here are some tips for getting legal matters in place:

Start early. The best time to put legal plans in place is when your loved one is still relatively healthy and can specify his or her wishes and decisions before they need to be made. No, this is not always an easy conversation to have. But in many cases, family members are grateful to have help in locating and updating legal documents. It also gives them peace of mind knowing that their wishes are out in the open.

Cover all the bases. Legal planning should focus on three areas: (1) making plans for health care, including long-term care; (2) making plans for the person’s property and finances; and (3) naming one or more persons to make decisions in these areas in the event that your family member becomes incapacitated.

Gather all legal documents. Your loved one may have completed legal documents many decades ago, but that doesn’t mean that they are still up-to-date or that your family member’s wishes are the same as they once were. Try to locate:

  • All estate planning documents such as wills, trusts, and powers of attorney
  • All advance directives, such as living wills, that specify what types of medical intervention the person does and does not want
  • Financial documents that reflect the person’s assets, such as bank statements, retirement account statements, insurance policies, and deeds
  • Full names and contact information for people your loved one would like to specify as decision makers in the event he or she becomes incapacitated

Consult with an elder law attorney. If your older relative has an established relationship with a lawyer, you can start by meeting with this person. Even if he or she is not an elder law specialist, the attorney has unique historical knowledge of your loved one’s legal situation. If more specialized assistance is needed, perhaps the lawyer can recommend an elder law attorney in the area. If you are starting from scratch, try searching the database of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys.

Legal matters in eldercare can seem daunting, but by spending some time now to plan ahead, you and your loved one can feel more peaceful about the future.

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