In response to the growing aging population in the U.S., a new, specialized area of law has emerged over the past several years – elder law. Elder-law lawyers are a relatively new specialty of attorneys who concentrate on handling the often complicated legal affairs of seniors. The National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA) maintains a website that includes a series of “Law and Aging” brochures addressing various elder law topics.
An elder-law attorney can help you clarify the pros and cons of obtaining a power of attorney, a trust, a conservatorship, a guardianship, Medicare benefits and Medicaid benefits and a number of other legal documents designed to preserve and protect your mother’s assets. You need to be aware of both your rights and obligations as you enter into any of these binding agreements. Here’s a list of the 10 most common arrangements:
- Will. Every person should have a will. This is a legal document that describes how the person wants her property distributed after her death. A will can contain the name of an executor or personal representative who will take responsibility to see that it is carried out. Unless a will has been drawn up, the state will decide how to divide the person’s possessions and property according to its own guidelines.
- Trust. A trust is a document that gives a person the right to manage another person’s money and property. It’s an agreement between your mother (the settlor or trustor) and the individual she appoints (the trustee) to carry out her wishes. Unlike a durable power of attorney, the trust is a long and detailed document that outlines specifically how money and property should be handled. In addition, the trust often remains in effect after the person dies. It can be either revocable or irrevocable, and there are several different kinds of trusts, depending on how your loved one wants to arrange the protection and disbursement of her inheritance.
- Letter of instruction. This is a document prepared by your mother and her lawyer. It should contain the names of the individuals to be notified upon her death, funeral arrangements, directions for disposal of personal property, numbers of bank accounts, information on insurance policies, anatomical-gift information, etc. This is not a legal document; it’s just a listing of personal requests to be followed along with the will.
- Family limited partnership. This estate-planning tool allows seniors who own their own businesses to reduce the value of the business for tax purposes and to adjust the cash flow received by children who are “limited partners” in the business. It’s a way for a businessperson to protect his or her business and provide for surviving relatives.
- Joint tenancy. Husbands and wives quite often have joint ownership of their money, property and other possessions. One form of common ownership is called “joint tenancy with a right of survivorship.” This means that if one spouse dies, the other automatically inherits everything. Other joint-tenancy agreements add an adult child to the agreement. Joint tenancy can help a loved one avoid probate, but it has its drawbacks and it’s certainly no substitute for a will. A lawyer can advise you on the pros and cons of joint tenancy.
- Probate. This is the process by which legal title to property is transferred from the deceased’s estate to her beneficiaries. If the person dies with a will (“testate”), the probate court determines if the will is valid, orders that creditors be paid, and makes sure the will distribution instructions are followed properly. If a person does not have a will (“intestate”), the probate court appoints a person to process all claims against the estate. A will can be contested during probate for a variety of reasons.
- Power of attorney. Your mother can give someone power of attorney over her affairs. You can have either general or special power of attorney. General power of attorney grants you power to take care of any financial transactions, and sometimes includes the power to make health care decisions as well. A special power of attorney authorizes you to do a limited number of actions for your grandmother. A power of attorney is usually granted only for a specific period of time. A Durable power of attorney, which does not terminate if the person granting it becomes mentally incompetent, involves the creation of a document (with the help of a lawyer) to give a trusted friend or relative the power to make either financial or medical decisions on your mother’s behalf when necessary.
- Conservatorship. If your mother becomes legally incapacitated, you can go to a probate court and ask that you be appointed a conservator over her property. Note that this can be done against your mom’s wishes and may cause friction between siblings. So use extreme caution before adopting this plan, and be sure to communicate clearly with other members of the family.
- Guardianship. If the court determines that your mother is incapacitated and unable to make her own decisions because of physical or mental disability, you can be named her guardian. She becomes your “ward,” and you have authority to manage her money or property.
- Representative payee. If your mother has a disability and is unable to manage a pension or public-benefit income, you may want to consider becoming a representative payee. Social Security, Veterans Affairs, and other public agencies can appoint you to disburse the funds. You should contact each specific agency for an application form.
For more information, you may wish to take a look at the website of the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging. If you could use further information and guidance, please don’t hesitate to give our Gift and Estate Planning staff a call. They would be happy to listen to your concerns and assist you with some practical suggestions. You can contact them Monday through Friday between 8:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Mountain time at (800) 782-8227.
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