Most often, becoming a caregiver starts with obtaining the authorization to share information and act on behalf of another person.
Even though you feel you have signed, created, executed and photocopied every document known to man, there always seems to be someone telling you that you don’t have the right forms to access the information you need.
In order to simplify this process as much as possible, let’s look at some of the situations in which you will need to have specific permissions to ensure that professionals and organizations are willing to speak with you about your loved one’s finances, benefits and more.
Secure Powers of Attorney
Elder law attorneys emphasize medical and financial powers of attorney (POA) as the starting point, and for good reason. A POA authorizes a specified individual to legally act on behalf of another person. A durable power of attorney is initiated while a loved one is competent, and automatically remains in effect after they are incapacitated. A springing power of attorney is invoked only when certain conditions that your loved one specifies are met (typically if they become mentally incompetent or disabled). The difficulty with a springing POA is that when one can invoke it is not always clear. The process for declaring someone incompetent varies from state to state and depends on what conditions your loved one specified in the documentation.
When Power of Attorney documents are prepared and signed, have an informed conversation with the attorney or paralegal who is assisting you. Ask lots of “what if” questions and find out what authorities this document grants and what powers it does not. Specifically ask if a doctor need to certify your loved one’s incapacitation, and find out what you should do if it needs to be invoked or legitimized.
Sometimes POA Isn’t Enough
While POA may seem like the cover-all legal document, that is rarely the case. Many third parties (like banks) are hesitant to accept financial POA documents because they may be liable for any wrongdoing that ensues if it turns out to be illegitimate. Financial institutions typically need some time to ensure the validity of the document and may wish to consult with the attorney who prepared it. In some cases, the third party may also request that you complete an affidavit (a sworn written statement) stating you are acting legally, which will relieve them of any liability. As long as you are acting in the best interest of the person you are representing (the principal) and within your granted authority, there should be no problems other than the slow and bureaucratic nature of this process.
Become an Authorized Representative or Representative Payee
The Social Security Administration (SSA) requires representatives to be authorized to participate in your loved one’s SSA matters, but the SSA does not recognize the POA designation. If you are trying to help a loved one with Social Security applications, claims, or appeals, you will need to apply to be their authorized representative by completing the SSA Appointment of Representative Form. A representative can be a relative, friend, attorney, or other qualified person, and the SSA will thoroughly vet this person before accepting their appointment.
It is always preferable, to speak to a live person, either by phone or in person at the Social Security office to answer questions and make sure you are using the right forms and terminology.
If you are looking to actively help a Social Security beneficiary manage their retirement benefits and/or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you must apply to become their representative payee. The SSA requires all beneficiaries who are incapable of managing their own payments to have a representative payee. While this may be the authorization that you are looking for, it is worth noting that it involves a great deal of accountability. This position requires meticulous recordkeeping of all the beneficiary’s benefits and how they are used, so be sure you can take on this responsibility. In instances where there is not a family member or friend available to serve as a payee, the SSA will appoint a qualified organization to manage the recipient’s benefits.
Become a VA-Approved Fiduciary
When it comes to managing a loved one’s VA benefits, there is yet another type of documentation needed. POA for finances is not a sufficient authorization for managing a veteran’s benefits. If a physician or a court of law has determined a veteran to be incapable of managing his or her finances, the VA will call for the appointment of a fiduciary. The veteran typically appoints who they wish to serve in this capacity, and the VA conducts a thorough investigation of the individual’s eligibility. In cases where there are no suitable family members or friends available to serve as a fiduciary, the VA will appoint a qualified individual or organization to fill this role.
Read: The VA Fiduciary Program
Medicare and Insurance Companies
In situations involving Medicare or insurance companies, the care recipient may be able to answer basic questions verbally over the phone, granting you authorization. If you and your loved one cannot be together on a call, “conference them in” using your cellphone or other devices that permit three-way calling.
Medicare specifically cannot provide personal health information to caregivers unless the care recipient has submitted written authorization or provides verbal permission. As with all legal authorizations, it’s best to take care of the paperwork well in advance. The Medicare Authorization Form can be completed online, over the phone with the assistance of a customer service representative, or by filling out and mailing in a hard copy. Electronic submission allows for quick and easy processing, which means you’ll be able to speak to a representative about your loved one’s health coverage much sooner. Mailing in the paper form may involve a few weeks’ delay before you are authorized to act on their behalf.
If you are looking to help a Medicare beneficiary file an appeal or complaint or request a coverage determination, you will need to be officially appointed as their representative. This document is very similar to the SSA application.
Private insurance companies often have their own versions of these forms, so be sure to check with your insurer on their specific authorization requirements.
Complete the Paperwork
Invest in a printer, scanner, or fax machine, because you will always need additional copies of POAs and other related documents to prove you are legally able to make decisions and gain access to information.
Do not be surprised if after showing nursing home staff or bank managers a ream of documents, your authorizations are still questioned. Individuals are often worried about taking responsibility for something where the lines are not clearly drawn. Do your part to ensure you always have the right paperwork in place.
When advocating for your loved one, keep in mind that many situations can be resolved by a combination of good will, clear explanations and reasonable questions posed to the right people. When in doubt, ask to speak to a supervisor. If one is not available or if no amount of rational discussion seems to be effective, feel free to invoke your right to call a political representative or a bureaucrat at a state or Federal level who supervises that person or organization.
Taking responsibility for someone else’s wellbeing is a complex and profound task. Make sure you know your rights, the rights of your care recipient, and your responsibilities in the matters at hand.