We may not always want to acknowledge it, but often we know a relative is dying. Improved technology is allowing doctors to better predict when the end is near. Many patients are opting for hospice and palliative care at the end of their lives. This time can be exceptionally difficult for families. In addition to the stress of loss and grieving, many find they must also handle the financial and business affairs of their relative. Unfortunately, there is not a guidebook for end of life legal issues. Chicago Bridge member Amy Roth asserts, “Death is the one outcome we are sure of, yet most of us choose to avoid thinking about it or planning for it until something happens.”
7 Legal Steps You Can Take When a Loved One is Dying
Here is a list of some common concerns and how you can address them.
1. Prepare Powers of Attorney
If your relative has not prepared powers of attorney, and they are still competent to do so, this is the most important thing to do. A power of attorney for health care allows a designated agent to make medical decisions when the patient is unable to do so. A power of attorney for property allows an agent to make financial decisions for the patient. Without these, it may be necessary to open up a guardianship – a process that is much more expensive and time consuming. Powers of attorney are inexpensive and easy. When a serious illness is first diagnosed it is important to get this done quickly before the client’s condition worsens.
2. Mind the Medical Treatment
Few things are as important as getting good medical care. Whoever is designated as the agent under the power of attorney for health care will have the responsibility to advocate for their relative. As dementia or terminal illness progresses, the patient becomes less able to advocate for themselves. At times, it can help to consult with a care manager . Involving a friend or relative with a medical background can also be a help.
3. Protect the Finances
The person who is the agent under a power of attorney for property has the responsibility of protecting the monetary assets. Often, the named agent is a spouse or child who is already grieving. Worse, they may not have any experience handling the finances. Remember that you can get professional help performing these tasks (example: The Sprau Advocate Group). There are a number of common pitfalls to consider:
A. Keeping the bills current – when somebody is in residential care for a period of months, it can be easy to forget that utility bills are accumulating. If the gas gets turned off, pipes could burst, electronics could be ruined. These can be expensive problems.
B. Monitor the mail – many of these issues can be avoided by making sure that you are monitoring the mail. If you cannot physically get it from the house, go to the post office and have the mail forwarded to you.
C. Check the insurance – Allowing a lapse in insurance coverage can have disastrous consequences. A term life insurance policy could expire just at the time that the benefits may be needed. Long term care insurance or disability insurance could be lost at the time it is most needed. Remember, too, that many homeowner’s insurance policies do not cover a house that is unoccupied. If the homeowner has been in a nursing home for several months, this could be an issue.
D. Remember the taxes – it is still necessary to file taxes for your relative who is incapacitated. This includes real estate taxes, state and federal income taxes. Sometimes it is not possible to gather enough information to file on time, but at least you should file for an extension. An accountant or lawyer can help gather the required documents.
4. Estate Planning
Everybody puts off estate planning. It is just one of those things can be hard to prioritize when you are healthy. If your relative is one of those people who put it off, this is the time to address it. For some, the decision to make a plan is simply too late. If the person has lost the ability to make decisions, they will not be able to prepare a will or trust. If they still have the capacity, you need to act quickly to help them complete the plan they want and sign it. Even if they have an estate plan, this is a good time to make sure that things are set up correctly. For example – many people prepare trust agreements, but never take the final step of putting their assets into the name of the trust. When this occurs, the trust cannot perform its intended function of avoiding probate. This is a problem that can be fixed if you act quickly. If successful, this type of change could allow the estate to pass quickly and seamlessly to the survivors – as opposed to being tied up in probate court for a year or more.
5. Seek Advice
Before you take any steps to move money or change how assets are titled, you should consult with a professional.
Many well meaning people have shuffled assets in the final weeks of a relatives life, only to defeat the purpose of that person’s estate plan. Closing an IRA and putting it into a joint checking account, for example, not only changes who will receive the money, but may also have serious tax consequences. Most good lawyers will agree to a free consultation to discuss these issues. If you come to that meeting organized, you can get a lot of your questions answered.
6. Have a Discussion About End of Life Issues
Some of this discussion may happen when your relative prepares the power of attorney for health care. Still, it is good to discuss these issues with immediate family so that everybody knows their wishes. Then you can go about making sure that the correct measures are in place: plans for hospice care, a Do Not Resuscitate order, powers of attorney and perhaps a living will as well. Chicago Bridge member, Arlene Wanetick, offers a variety of examples of how a person can take creative ownership over their own funeral.
7. Enjoy The Time Remaining
Nothing is more important than being with your loved one in their final days.
Getting your relative’s legal house in order early will give them peace of mind. It will help free you up to spend time with them in their final days. It also honors them by ensuring that their wishes are observed.