As people live longer lives, they also live healthier ones, for the most part. But with advancing ages comes increased risk of some serious illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease. About half those who live past age 85 will have the disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. More than 5 million Americans currently suffer from dementia, and that number is projected to increase to more than 7 million by 2025, unless major medical breakthroughs help alleviate the suffering.
People with dementia eventually lose memory, cognitive ability, and language. If you or someone in your family is concerned about the prospect of impairment, you should know that it’s very important to get legal documents in place before dementia makes it impossible for you to understand the issues and make informed decisions. You can’t make a legally valid Will, Power of Attorney, or other legal document unless you are of what’s commonly called "sound mind"—that is, you must understand your family circumstances, act of your own free will, and understand the consequences of your choices.
Here are the key documents to move forward with.
DURABLE POWER OF ATTORNEY FOR FINANCES. This document lets you choose someone to have control over your financial affairs if it’s ever necessary. You can give the person—who’s called your agent or your attorney-in-fact—authority immediately, or structure the document so that the authority kicks in only if someday a doctor certifies that it’s needed. Many people choose to make the power effective immediately, trusting that the person they’ve chosen won’t act unless it’s necessary.
Having a financial durable power of attorney (DPOA) in place can be a huge help to your family. For example, if you’re in the hospital, your agent could pay bills for you from your checking account. But the biggest benefit is if there is a long period of incapacity, as there often is with dementia. (People with Alzheimer’s disease live an average of 8 years, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.)
Without a DPOA, no one—not even your spouse, or the Executor you’ve appointed in your Will—would have authority to take care of necessary financial tasks, such as paying bills, managing retirement accounts, or selling assets. Family members would have to go to court, produce evidence that you cannot manage your affairs, and ask that the court appoint a conservator or guardian to handle your money. Going forward, the conservator would be subject to court oversight. The whole process is expensive, intrusive, and time-consuming.
HEALTH CARE POWERS OF ATTORNEY. Your health care power of attorney is the next most important document to create when you’re planning for the possibility of dementia. In these documents, you name someone to make health care decisions for you if you can’t. These documents can give enormous relief to the family members who must make difficult decisions about your care when you are unable to do so. If they have clear direction from you, it will make their lives far easier at a difficult time.
DIRECTIVES TO PHYSICIANS, ALSO CALLED A "LIVING WILL." Here, you express your wishes for end-of-life care. Living wills typically cover pain relief and medical treatments such as surgery, resuscitation, ventilators, and feeding tubes. You can go into as much (or as little) detail as you wish. For example, you might simply say that you want everything necessary to relieve pain (palliative care or comfort care) but that in certain circumstances you don’t want to receive extraordinary measures such as CPR.
WILLS, TRUST, AND BENEFICIARY DESIGNATIONS. Once you’ve taken care of the documents that give someone authority if you’re ever incapacitated, the next step is to take care of leaving your assets to the people or organizations you want to inherit them.
Wills. - It’s a good idea for everyone to have a simple Will, which leaves your assets to the beneficiaries of your choice. In your Will, you also name your executor (personal representative), the person who will carry out your wishes after your death.
Beneficiary designations. - For a lot of people, significant assets pass not through a Will, but under beneficiary designations you make in other documents. For example, if you enrolled in a retirement savings plan where you work or bought life insurance, you probably named a beneficiary on a form provided by the plan administrator or the insurance company. It’s also common to name transfer-on-death (TOD) beneficiaries for bank accounts, to register vehicles in transfer-on-death form (in states that allow this), or name a beneficiary for a savings bond. It’s a good idea to review those designations and think about any changes you might want to make.
Living Trusts. - A Revocable Living Trust, like a Will, lets you leave your assets to whomever you choose. One of he advantage of a Trust is that after your death, your beneficiaries don’t have to conduct a probate court proceeding before wrapping up your affairs. A Trust can also help with planning for dementia, because your successor trustee (the person you name to take over the trust after your death) can take control of trust assets if you become incapacitated. The trustee’s authority extends only to assets held in the name of the trust, however.
If you have questions about any of these documents, give us a call at 253.858.5434 to find out how we can be of service.