B Crystal West Edwards, Esq., CELA
Tis the Season to be ... PREPARED. The holiday season is upon us and excitement fills the air as we begin to visit family, friends and loved ones again. This holiday season, many of us will be cheerful to reconnect with those we love, while others will be mourning difficult losses that occurred this year (and in years prior!). Recognizing that estate and long term care planning do not bring the same volume of laughter as the family's annual game of Taboo!, the time we spend together is a perfect opportunity to communicate fears, wishes, and desires with those we love.
Here are 10 Questions to Ask Your Aging Loved Ones as we come together this holiday season:
1. Have you appointed someone to make legal and financial decisions for you if you are unable to make such decisions for yourself?
Talking Point – this is called a Power of Attorney. It is not enough for mom to say "absolutely son, I appoint you to make decisions for me." Be deliberate in explaining to mom that she must sign a Power of Attorney in the presence of a notary public. Really, we recommend that she sign a Power of Attorney in the presence of two disinterested witnesses and a notary.
2. Have you appointed someone to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to make decisions for yourself?
Talking Point – this is called a Medical Power of Attorney or a Healthcare Proxy. It is not enough for dad to say "certainly, your sister can make whatever decision she wants because you know mom will never be able to make a decision for me." Dad needs to understand that if his desire is for your sister to make decisions for him, he needs to state so in writing. A Healthcare Proxy can be signed in the presence of two witnesses, or a notary. We recommend both!
3. Do you want to be kept alive on machines and/or tubes? Do you want us to pull the plug if your doctors believe there is no medical likelihood you could be restored to a meaningful life?
Talking Point – this is called a Living Will or an Instruction Directive. Reassure mom that you will not pull the plug prematurely! 🙂 All jokes aside, people are often concerned that a medical professional will "jump the gun" and turn the machine off too quickly. These fears can be eased by understanding that you can choose the standard for others to follow before pulling the plug. For example: "If I am brain dead or in an irreversible coma for a period not less than three (3) months, I wish to withhold or withdraw all life-sustaining treatment."
4. Do you have a Will? If so, where is the original and who did you appoint as the Executor? If not, would you consider speaking with an elder law attorney to ensure your desires are implemented after your death?
Talking Point – this is called a Last Will and Testament. Now is NOT the time to remind dad that your brother has done nothing to assist with his day-to-day needs or that your sister could not care any less either since she has not visited in 3 years. This could be considered undue influence and at a later time we can discuss how it will derail the best estate plans!
5. How do you want to live your twilight years? Would you like to live independently? Have you considered whether to downsize or upgrade your home to be more accessible if you have physical limitations in the future?
Talking Point – this conversation typically goes one of two ways: "Daughter, you do everything in your power to keep me out of a facility for the rest of my life. If you put me in a home, I will haunt you every day of my afterlife." Or, "daughter I do not want to be a burden on you and your family... when I start to lose it, drop me off at the nearest place and just make sure my peppermints are at my bedside!"
The point of this discussion is to make sure that mom has thought about future living options and the anticipated cost to live comfortably in whatever setting she has envisioned.
6. How will we pay for long term care costs in the future? Do you have long term care insurance? Are you willing to talk to an elder law attorney about ways to protect your assets?
Talking Point – this is a difficult conversation for the average person because the starting position is "I am not worried about long term care costs since I am never going to a nursing home". Please explain to dad that we never plan to put someone in a nursing home. We plan to keep them as comfortable as possible in the care setting they prefer (typically at home). However, we must be prepared for the worst-case scenario, which is the dreaded "what if?"
The reality is the average cost of a semi-private (shared) room in a New Jersey nursing home is approximately $11,000 per month. In other words, even though dad has built a significant nest egg for himself, we need to ensure it is protected and distributed in a way that is satisfactory to him. Long term care planning allows us to do that.
7. Who should I call (or where should I look) to get information about your finances if something happens to you unexpectedly and you are unable to participate in any decision-making?
Talking Point – this is your opportunity to ask about mom's trusted advisors. Does she have a financial advisor who manages (or has information about) her asset holdings? Does she have a long time accountant or attorney that could point you in the right direction in the event of crisis?
You get bonus points if mom introduces you to these trusted advisors after the holidays!
8. Where can I find a list of your account numbers and passwords to ensure your accounts stay current if you are unable to devote the attention needed?
Talking Point – it is critical to reassure dad that you are not trying to violate his privacy while he still has his mental facilities. This question is intended to encourage dad to make the information easily accessible in the event of a crisis, while at the same time, respecting his privacy while he is fully capable of making decisions for himself.
9. How do you want to be remembered? Do you have strong feelings about funeral services? Public viewings? Burial? Cremation?
Talking Point – Brace Yourself!! This is a judgment-free zone. If mom wants all of her funeral guests to wear blue while she is dressed in head-to-toe yellow, you say "yes ma'am" and let it happen!
10. What are your greatest life accomplishments that you would want others to know from your childhood, teenage years, young adulthood, and adulthood in general?
Talking Point – Think about it... how much do you know about your father? You know him as your father but others know him as a husband, son, brother, uncle, cousin, friend and colleague. Your perspective of him is just that...your perspective. This is how you get all the juicy details that will make grieving family members and friends smile (or laugh!) during services.
If you or someone you love needs assistance working through these questions or implementing these recommendations, we are here to help!