You can’t control everything in life, but when it comes to facing the inevitable, some preparation can give you a sense of control. At the very least, it can ease some of the stress that comes with caring for aging parents. Here are some common legal documents you may have heard about…
Power of attorney. This gives you (or whomever your parent chooses) the authority to handle your parent’s financial affairs. A power of attorney can go into effect the moment it’s signed, or it can be put on hold and go into effect when a person is “incapacitated,” which means they’re no longer mentally or physically competent. If you choose the latter, you may need to have a doctor to certify that your parent is incapacitated before you can have control over their finances. Powers of attorney are only valid during life, but they are useful if you find yourself having to pay bills, manage investments or even make calls requesting information from a bank, for example.
Power of attorney for healthcare. This is also known as a medical power of attorney. It authorizes a specific person to make health care decisions for your parent when they no longer can. Without it, the “next of kin” would likely be called upon to make those decisions, but your parent might not want that. This gives them the ability to choose exactly who will make medical decisions for them. If you have siblings, it’s not always easy to make a decision as a group. It depends on the dynamic of the family. In some cases, it’s simpler to have one person hold this power.
Living will. This is a very specific document that is pretty much limited to stating your wishes about life-sustaining measures – resuscitation, feeding tubes, breathing tubes, etc. If your parent doesn’t want these things, he or she can sign this simple document that tells doctors what to do, or not to do, when it comes to prolonging their life. In general, a hospital is probably going to take these measures unless your parent specifically tells them not to.
Some other things to consider are a medical release of information form and adding your name on bank accounts. The release would allow you to talk to the doctor about your parent’s medical care. And if you are an authorized co-signor on your parents’ financial accounts, you can pay their bills and for them while they’re in the hospital, for example. Most of these suggestions take a certain level of trust and comfort. Your parents may or may not be willing to have you in control – or potential control – of their money during their lifetime.
Your parents’ attorney will likely suggest additional documents, certainly a will and perhaps a trust. Every situation is different. The most important thing is to simply start the conversation.
Written by Michael Helfand