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contractThree important legal documents that every adult should have are a will, a living trust and a living will.  Each document defines your decisions for the different areas of your estate and will save your loved ones time, money and stress when you are gone.  These documents are easy to draw up, or you could have a lawyer prepare the documents for a nominal fee.

A WILL dictates how your estate and property is to be distributed after your death and can also designate guardians for children and self should you become incapable or pass away. A regular will must pass through probate court in most states before your estate can be passed on to your heirs. Most state laws do not require that you use a lawyer to prepare your will; you can use a will kit at home.  Probate court can take some time if there are any disputes, so make sure your wishes are clear when writing your will.

A LIVING WILL defines your wish to be kept or not kept alive by artificial life support in the event of terminal illness or injury. A living will also gives you the ability to set limits on your hospital, medical and funeral costs that can easily drain your estate and leave your loved ones with the bills. If you express your wishes beforehand, it will make the process much less stressful for those involved in your care and the execution of your final wishes.

A LIVING TRUST is quite similar to a regular will, but they are different at the core.  Unlike a regular will that cannot be changed after it is written, a living trust can be amended at any time.  A living trust takes effect while you are alive, whereas a will takes effect after you pass. You can put property into your living trust at any time before your death and afterward your estate goes directly to your heirs without passing through probate court. If you ever change your mind about the definitions of your will, you can change or revoke how your estate will be divided at any time by using a living trust. A living trust, will also save money and time later on because your loved ones won’t have to go through probate first.

elderly parent debtLet’s say that your mother has granted you power of attorney over her finances, and she has recently become unable to manage her own affairs due to dementia. Upon looking into her accounts, you discover that she has several thousand dollars worth of debt. Can the creditors come after you personally for this money?

No, they cannot. This holds true even if you have power of attorney. The only way you can be responsible for your parent’s debt is if you were also a co-signer on the loan. But, those of us who feel duty-bound to do the right thing  may want to make sure that the bill gets paid anyway. Here are some things to consider before you proceed.

What type of debt does your loved one have? Depending on who the creditor is and the conditions of the loan, the rules for paying back the debt or your sense of obligation might be different. A bank loan is going to be relatively impersonal. The bank will be business-like if there’s a problem with the account, and if everything’s in order will probably not hassle you to repay the whole loan quickly. However, if your mother owes money to a contractor who also happens to be a family friend, and he needs the money, the debt will be much harder to ignore.

Is there a way to contest or renegotiate the debt? For example, was your mother taken advantage of by an unethical salesperson? Did she put a doctor’s bill on a credit card rather than working out a payment plan directly with the office? Can items be returned or recurring services canceled?

Explore different ways of addressing the problem. It’s always worth calling the creditors to see if more favorable arrangements can be negotiated, and the Consumer Credit Counseling Service can help you with working things out fairly. Also, examine your parent’s finances carefully to determine if a source of funding is available. For example, they may qualify for a reverse mortgage that can help you get the debt taken care of quickly. And if your parent has passed away, the matter is as simple as using whatever funds remain in the estate to pay what you can, and then notifiying whoever has not been paid that there are no more assets.

If there’s no money available to pay the creditor and your parent is still alive, you can simply try asking them to forgive the debt (though they may not buy that there are no assets unless your parent is on Medicaid). Your parent can also declare bankruptcy. You’ll of course want to speak with a lawyer before considering this step.

Few of us are comfortable leaving debts unpaid, but if you follow the steps above you will have done your due diligence to get creditors what they are owed.

children help with caring for seniorsMost people have fond memories of at least one of their grandparents. These are some of our most cherished relationships. It’s important to both your children and your parents that they make the most of this relationship while they still can. During this difficult time when the family struggles with dementia or the poor health of your parent, strong grandparent-grandchild relationships are vital and can be very nurturing to them both. Often people leave children out during times of illness, but if this happens they can miss out on the chance to help a relative who needs them.

As adults, we want to feel that we are valuable and that we’re making a contribution to our world. That’s what makes old age so tough – we can begin to feel that we’re no longer relevant and that we no longer matter. Kids, on the other hand, want to be recognized for what they do well, especially when they’re teenagers.

Kids today often don’t know much about history, and this is where a good relationship with their grandparents can really benefit them. They have much to learn about where they come from, and about things that happened before they were born. Even if your parent thinks your family history is unremarkable, your kids are likely to be curious and glad to know where they came from.

And kids, in turn, know quite a few things that grandparents don’t. They may be able to set up your mom’s new DVD player faster than you can say “Gone with the Wind” or they are pros at doing that cool new dance everyone’s talking about. Even a sullen teenager may be more receptive to assisted living visits if you find some way to incorporate their talents. Maybe they can build an online photo album with treasured images to share with their grandparent. Or, if they were just in a school play, maybe your child and their classmates will agree to volunteer to perform a few scenes to entertain the assisted living residents. (Won’t mom be proud!)

Make sure that both grandchild and grandparent know what they can contribute to the other, and ask each of them privately to help you by contributing their knowledge and spending time together.

By each of them sharing what they know and what they’re good at, grandparents and grandchildren can meet each other’s emotional needs. So getting them to spend time together can be good for your parent, good for your kids, and ultimately, good for you because everyone’s happier and a little less stressed.

using life insurance to pay for assisted livingWhen thinking about how to pay for assisted living, one option that seniors and their caregivers forget about is the ability to turn any active life insurance policy into a long-term care benefit plan. This little-known option has actually been in existence for decades, but few people take advantage of it.

Once a person reaches old age, life insurance is nice to have but not crucial, as more often than not they don’t have any dependents. However, long-term care is a major expense at this point in time. This option gives seniors the flexibility to use this investment for needs that are more pressing. The benefit can be used with any type of life insurance policy: term, whole, or universal.

In some ways, this benefit is similar to regular long-term care insurance (though the two are not exactly the same).  Once the life insurance policy is converted, ownership of the policy shifts from the policyholder to a benefits administrator entity. The benefits administrator takes over responsibility for paying the monthly premiums on the policy. An account is set up from which the benefits administrator pays a specific amount, based on the value of the policy, towards the original policyholder’s long-term care needs. Often the monthly payment is flexible – for example, if the value of your policy is $24,000, you might be able to choose to receive $2,000 per month for 12 months, or $1,000 per month for 24 months.

It may not be a large enough amount to pay the full assisted living bill, but it can yield a significant monthly sum that will go a long way towards defraying costs. In many cases, the long-term care benefit is worth much more than the cash the policyholder would get by simply surrendering the policy.

Taking this option doesn’t mean completely forgoing the benefits of life insurance. You are often able to keep a small funeral benefit worth around one or two thousand dollars.

There are several reasons why this route may NOT work for you. For example, if you have a small policy of $10,000 or less, you’ll likely find that it’s better to choose the cash surrender value or simply keep the life insurance. Also, in some cases the cash surrender value may be larger than the long-term care benefit. Finally, in order to use this option you must have an immediate need for some form of approved long-term care. Payments are made directly to the long-term care provider, not to you.

If this seems like a possible option for you or your loved one, speak with a financial advisor who specializes in helping seniors.

tax tips for senior caregiversWith everything going on in December, taxes are the last thing we want to think about. But this is a crucial time if you’re looking to save some money when you send in returns in a few months. You probably already know to make sure you’ve used up your flexible spending account or to contribute to your IRA, but here are a few other things you can do during the year-end crunch.

  • Decide whether or not you (or your parents) will itemize deductions. Run the numbers to decide whether you’re better off taking the standard deduction (which is $5,950 for single filers or $11,900 for those who are married filing jointly). If you are going to itemize, look for opportunities to increase the amount of deductions before the year is over, since all deductions will lower your tax bill. For example, if you make a larger-than-usual donation to charity you’ll reap extra benefits. This may motivate you to do a little holiday cleaning, and take unused clothing or furniture to The Salvation Army or Goodwill. These organizations will provide you with a receipt, and you’ll be able to claim the item’s fair value as a deduction.
  • Make large gifts now. If you or your parents want to give someone a large cash gift, write the check and make sure it’s cashed before January 1. You can give as much as $13,000 to an individual without being required to pay gift tax.
  • Make an extra house payment. Here’s a trick for maximizing your deductions if you’ll be itemizing next year. Make your January mortgage payment early. As long as you mail it by December 31, the payment will qualify for this tax year.
  • Review medical expeneses. How much have you and your parents paid for medical care out-of-pocket? If your medical expenses are greater than 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income, you can deduct them on your tax return. If you are close, you may be able to find ways to get care or purchase supplies that will put you over the edge.
  • Consider claiming your parent as a dependent. If you pay more than 50% of your parent’s expeneses, and their gross income is less than  $3,800 (not counting disability payments, tax-exempt income, or Social Security), you can claim them as a dependent. Again, if you’re just shy of qualifiying, see if you can make up the gaps in the last few weeks of the year.

As always, be sure to check with your accountant before taking any of these steps.

selling home when your parent has Alzheimer'sWhen it comes time for a senior to move into assisted living, one of the most important items on the to-do list is to sell the person’s home. Often, the money from the sale is needed to pay for necessary care. It has to be done, but there’s a catch: only a homeowner can legally sell their home. If Alzheimer’s has already incapacitated the person, then getting this task done becomes difficult.

Basically, you cannot act if you do not have power of attorney. Hopefully, your parent was organized enough to assign this power to a family member or other trusted person while they still had the capability to make these important decisions. But all too often, this step has been postponed, and now that the parent has lost capacity to make decisions, it’s too late. The caregiver’s only option now is to apply for guardianship of their loved one through the legal system.

However, be forewarned that the process of obtaining guardianship is expensive and draining. For one thing, the court will need to award you the right to complete every step of the process. You need to have permission to sell the home, you need to get court approval of the sale price, and then you need to have permission to use the proceeds to pay for senior care. Getting these rulings made will take anywhere from a few weeks to a couple months, which seems to be a long time to wait when the money is needed now.

The first step is to find a buyer who’s interested in the house, and then get them to sign a contract. The contract must state that the sale is conditional upon court approval. You can then file this document with the court and wait for them to review it and approve the terms of the sale. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for buyers to decide that this extra step is too much trouble. If they can find a house they like just as much without restrictions like this, they may decide to walk away from the deal.

The process isn’t necessarily any easier even if the caregiver has power of attorney. Sometimes the title company puts up obstacles and challenges the validity of the agreement between the senior and the caregiver. They may want your parent to still sign something to approve the sale, or they may want to meet with them to confirm that they are incapacitated.

In the end, the takeaway message is that selling a parent’s home is complicated, and you should be prepared for a lengthy and challenging process. Your best course of action is to find a lawyer specializing in elder law, who will be able to guide you through the process in the most painless way possible.

how to talk to someone who is dyingWhen someone has received a terminal diagnosis, it’s a sensitive and traumatic time for them. Our words and actions at this point carry great weight. While it would be nice to believe that there’s no wrong thing to say and it’s the thought that counts, those close to the dying can make the experience easier or harder for them depending on what they say.

If your loved one has recently received the bad news, look to them for clues about what to say and do. Don’t be surprised if they in fact don’t want to talk at all. People facing their own passing are often relieved to not have others say anything – though they are also glad to know that they can reach out if they choose to do so. Do your best to respect what they want, but find ways to make it clear that you’re willing to offer a listening ear when they need it. Rather than fretting about what to say and whether it’s the “right thing,” put your energy into listening to and observing your loved one.

Whatever you do, avoid grand platitudes about fate or God’s will. These won’t make the person feel better, and may even make them feel that they are at fault for their illness in some way. Don’t tell your loved one that they’ll be OK – both you and they know that this isn’t really true. Don’t try to praise them by telling them how strong they are – at this time they may not feel very strong. Instead, they need to be allowed to acknowledge their fears.

Find ways to emphasize that you love them and that you’re there to help them in the way they need. Do your best to make this time pleasant and comfortable for them. This is one exception to the advice to let your loved one guide you – as far as comfort goes you should take the lead. This is the time for random acts of kindness like making them breakfast or doing their laundry for them. They may be too preoccupied to ask for help with these everyday tasks. Make sure that you follow through on any offers you make.

What gift do you give someone who doesn’t have many days left in the physical world? The gift of your time. Even sitting quietly with your loved one can be valuable to them. It sends the message that you’re there for them and that you’re willing to support them in their struggles.

guide to online pharmaciesMany of us are doing more and more online shopping, and so inevitably we wonder if we should buy medication online too. Beyond the simple convenience, the cost savings are certainly tempting, especially when dealing with an expensive chronic condition. However, the world of online prescription drugs is one that needs to be navigated with caution. Counterfeit medicine is abundant, and the old saying that “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is” was never more apt.

There are both legitimate and illegitimate online pharmacies, and the trick to buying medicine online successfully is to be able to tell the difference. By taking the time to gain a little knowledge, you too can be an informed consumer and avoid getting burned.

Here are signs of a reputable and safe online pharmacy:

  • They require that you submit a prescription from your doctor. Usually they will ask for this by mail. If they allow you to send a fax or a scanned copy, they should then check with your doctor to make sure that the prescription is legitimate. Avoid sites that will send you medicine just on the basis of a questionnaire, without requiring you to visit your doctor.
  • They should also require that you fill out a detailed profile that includes your medical history.
  • You should be able to speak to a licensed pharmacist who can answer any questions you might have.
  • The pharmacy should be located in the United States. Many online pharmcies are located abroad. The prices may be cheap, but as much as 40% of the medicine in these countries is counterfeit, so you’re much more likely to not get what you paid for, or even something that’s safe to consume.
  • You can easily find and understand the website’s various policies regarding privacy, shipping, and payment.

Officials recommend that you only use sites that have accreditation from an organization called Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS). This insures that the company has gone through a rigorous review process and on-site inspection. You can find a list of pharmacies that have achieved this accreditation at the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.

When your order arrives, make sure that all the information on the label is correct, including your name and the name of the medication. Make sure that the dosage you’ve been given matches what the doctor ordered. Also keep an eye out for packaging that seems to be tampered with. If this is a medication you’ve taken before, compare its color, shape, and size with what you’ve taken previously. Do you see, taste, or smell any differences? You should also be able to easily verify that the medicine has not expired. If you have any doubt about what you’ve received, don’t take the medication until you’ve spoken with your doctor or pharmacist. This may be a hassle that negates the convenience of online shopping, but it’s much easier than making a mistake that could be costly or lead to further health problems.

should you see geriatric specialistYour loved one has multiple doctors already. Do they really need to add one more to the list? This post is designed to help you decide whether your loved one should consider seeing a geriatric specialist.

A geriatric specialist provides comprehensive care for the elderly. They’ve completed their residency in Family or Internal Medicine, and have one or two years additional training in the various issues – physical, mental, and social – that affect this age group.

There are several benefits to seeing a geriatric specialist. Seniors sometimes experience illnesses differently than younger adults, and so it helps for them to work with a doctor who understands their specific situation. Geriatric specialists are especially well-equipped to understand the particular complexity of senior health issues, which are typically caused by multiple factors. For example, they can examine a senior’s prescription drug regimine and make sure that they’re not over-medicated. They will also be familiar with the particular resources available to help your loved one in your specific local area.

Whether or not a senior should see a geriatric specialist depends on their particular situation. After all, seniors themselves are different: one 80 year-old may be active with minimal health problems, while another may be struggling with serious health conditions. Geriatric specialists tend to step in when an individual’s health problems become complicated. It’s recommended that all seniors consider a visit when they turn 65, and highly recommended for those seniors who are in some way impaired, who have multiple medical problems, who are experiencing cognitive decline or dementia, or whose family members are struggling with caregiving.

If you do decide to take your loved one to see a geriatric specialist, the initial assessment will take several hours. You’ll be given a detailed questionairre to fill out that your loved one will most likely need help with. Make sure you bring a list of all medications, hearing aids and dentures, eyeglass prescriptions, and information about other doctors your loved on is seeing or has seen recently. The following elements make up a typical assessment:

  • Complete physical exam
  • Detailed medical history
  • List of medications and their purpose
  • Dental exam
  • Hearing and vision tests
  • Pain level analysis
  • Cognitive evaluation
  • Osteoporosis screening
  • Dietary analysis and advice
  • Meeting with a social worker
  • Discussion with family members

Rather than being “just another doctor” a geriatric specialist can help you with managing the extensive medical care your loved one is already receiving. Many seniors and their caregivers find these physician’s particular expertise helpful.

traveling with seniorsThe biggest travel day of the year, the day before Thanksgiving, is almost here. For families with an aging loved one, that brings up the question of how to get that person to the feast. Whether travel means just a few hours by car or a plane ride, here are some tips for making sure your voyage goes as smoothly as possible.

1. Talk to your loved one’s doctor. Make sure that it’s OK for them to travel before you take off, and that the place where you’re headed is somewhere they can handle. Your doctor will let you know if there’s any special preparations you need to make in advance, and can also give you advice on medication to take if problems with anxiety or other issues arise. Make sure that you fill your loved one’s prescriptions before you go.

2. Do some advance planning. Think through your trip with your loved one’s limitations in mind. Are you renting a car? Then make sure you’ve requested a minivan or other vehicle that will be easy for them to get into and out of. Make sure you can fit their wheelchair and any other bulky equipment. If you’re flying, put in a request for seats meant for the disabled and notify the airline of any dietary restrictions. Also request a wheelchair so that you have some help navigating the airport. Contact both your hotel and airline to make sure they are able to handle any medical equipment that your loved one needs. Request a hotel room at ground level.

3. Be realistic. You may need to scale down on your usual travel routine. Keep things simple. For example, consider renting a cabin in the woods that’s just a two-hour drive away, rather than going to Europe or planning anything that will require a lot of walking (such as visiting an amusement park). Do your research in advance to make sure the location is properly equipped to have your loved one as a guest. Put plenty of padding in your schedule and don’t overload on the activities: it will likely take much more time to do things than normal.

4. Make sure you have necessary supplies. Special stockings can help if your loved one will be sitting for long periods, so that their extremities don’t go numb or a blood clot forms. Make sure you have protective gear for the sun, and especially that you have enough water since seniors are more susceptible to dehydration. Make sure medical information is with you at all times in case there’s an emergency.