How do you convince a sick elder that they need to get their legal affairs in order?


Q: My elderly aunt, with a schizophrenic son, has no legal documents in place (will, POA, etc). As her caregiver, how can I convince her that she needs to get her affairs in order – now?

A: Many people find it very difficult to deal with wills, powers of attorney, etc. They are afraid that dealing with these issues somehow makes it more likely that something bad will happen to them.

Try to convince your aunt of just the opposite, that the state or a local judge will take control of her future unless she sets out her wishes in a legal document. For example, it may be advisable for her to leave her assets to a trust for the benefit of her son, as opposed to leaving it to him outright.

The trust can hold and protect the money for the son's benefit while allowing him to qualify for various government benefits, while an outright gift or bequest of the money to him under her will could cause him to lose government benefits.

So, yes, I agree with you that you should make an effort to point out to your aunt the advantages of advance planning, for her son's sake if not for her own.

K. Gabriel Heiser is an attorney with over 25 years of experience in elder law and estate planning. He is the author of "How to Protect Your Family's Assets from Devastating Nursing Home Costs: Medicaid Secrets," an annually updated practical guide for the layperson.

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The Schizophrenia complicates matters. She may feel that by doing nothing she is insuring that all her assets will go to her son. Not true. Best choice could be to approach it from the point of her son's care. Once she understands that she is helping him, she may be more willing to make plans.
Another point of difficulty may be her desire to keep her financial condition from others. She could actually have a problem she's ashamed for people to know aboutl. Or she may be afraid that making arrangements will hasten her end. Or she may just be secretive and think it's nobody's business.
One way my parents solved this was to go to an out of area attorney. He was a specialist but he did not handle accounts for anyone else they knew. And the wording in their documents meant that no one else could view them until they were both dead. Angie's List should be able to give you some names of ethical people in your area who specialize in elder law.
POA is a scary concept. Your mother has lost so much control already she may be afraid of losing what little she has left.
Try approaching her from the angle of Prefered Intensity of Treatment. You aren't asking for power. You're asking for her wishes. Does she want to be on a ventelator, have a stomach feeding tube, be pain free even if it means her thinking is fuzzy (my Dad did; my Mom didn't). Any hospital or other care facility should have a list. This may open up other end of life issues. Is there anyone she trusts? Outsiders with position often carry more weight that family in this process. Is there a clergy person, another relative, a doctor? Most of them are only too glad to help. You may resent outsiders knowing more than you do. That's human. But don't let that stop you from getting your paperwork in order. She will die before you do. The position you have taken is that it is better to know and have a plan than to have to operate in the dark. You're right! Stick with it.