I want to share with you three important legal documents your parents should prepare as they age.
Aside from talking to your parents about money, this is probably another very awkward conversation. Just think about how you would even open up the subject.
“Hey mom. I really like this dish that you made… By the way, do you have a will? How about an advanced healthcare directive? Can I see it?”
However, it’s better to have this awkward discussion now than when your parents are at the hospital. Or god forbid, their mental health has declined to a point where they can’t ‘legally’ make decisions for themselves.
By thinking ahead and preparing now, you are taking care of your family in the future; your parents, yourself and your children.
You should also complete your own estate plan before you even bring this topic up with your parents.
This is what my wife and I did. Not only did we learn what the specific legal paperwork were important. It gave credibility to my parents when we brought up the subject of their own estate plan.
So, what are the three legal documents you should discuss with your parents:
1 - Power of Attorney
Also called a ‘Financial Power of Attorney.’ This is a legal document that allows you to designate an ‘agent’ to make all your financial and business decisions.
This would be used if one of your parents were at the hospital and not able to make financial decisions.
With this document, the “agent” listed on this document would be able to make financial decisions on your parents behalf.
As you can tell, this is a pretty powerful document. So one must feel comfortable designating someone as their ‘agent’ within the power of attorney.
Discuss some options with your parents as regards to who the agent will be:
Trust – It is very important that your parents choose someone they trust to handle their affairs. As well as make sound financial decisions on their behalf.
Comfortable – Will they feel comfortable with this person speaking with the bank or lawyers on their behalf? Is this person organized enough to keep track of all their financial matters?
And it is at this point you shouldn’t be surprised if they congratulate you on your new job! – as their agent within the Power of Attorney.
You are responsible enough to initiate this conversation with your parents. I’m sure they would feel confident that you can also make responsible financial decisions on their behalf
2) Healthcare Power of Attorney
This document allows an individual to appoint an healthcare agent. This agent can access his or her medical records and make medical decisions on his or her behalf (when he or she is no longer able to).
Essentially if you are incapacitated, the person designated as the agent in a healthcare power of attorney can make decisions as regards to your medical care.
Pretty heavy stuff. It’s hard to think about such situation especially as regards to our parents. But let me share with you an example why I consider this so important.
A year after my wife and I got married, my wife’s grandmother (who was pushing 92) was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Knowing someone you love is about to pass is hard enough. But dealing with all the legal paperwork in the midst of this challenge is unimaginable.
I saw all the stress that my wife had to endure because appropriate legal paperwork wasn’t in place. I vowed that I wanted to do better.
It’s not easy to imagine one of our parents needing intensive medical care. Or they aren’t able to make decisions for themselves
However, we must do all we can to the avoid unnecessary pain that can come in the midst of such a hard time.
I highly recommend planning for the worst case scenario with this document.
Few recommendations as you discuss this topic with your parents:
Have Medical Knowledge – Make sure your parents are selecting the right agent when it comes to making medical decisions on their behalf. It would be ideal to have someone that feels comfortable speaking with medical professionals. If you have a doctor or a nurse in the family that would be helpful.
Understand Family Dynamic – Also it would be ideal if this person understood the sensitive dynamics of your family. Some families are open to sharing medical information while other families like to keep it private. When my wife was acting as the agent within the healthcare power of attorney for her grandmother, she was able to navigate the sensitive line of what to share and what not to share because she understood the dynamics of her extended family.
3 - Living Will (aka Advanced Medical Directive)
This document states an individual’s last medical wishes when he or she can’t communicate them anymore.
It is very important that the agent listed in the healthcare power of attorney is familiar with your parent’s medical wishes.
This document comes into effect with a chronic illness or disease
e.g. do you want to be sustained with medical equipment or be allowed to pass away naturally?
Once again, I know. This is pretty heavy stuff. Why would anyone in their right mind want to think about this with their aging parents
However I want to once again refer back to my wife’s grandmother’s story.
Her grandmother did not specify what her final wishes were on paper before she fell into a coma.
She was being sustained with a machine but no-one in the family could say for certainty what she would have wanted.
Continue being sustained with breathing equipment? Or to pass away naturally?
Almost 10 years later, my wife still asks if she did the right thing by allowing her to pass naturally?
The advanced medical directive takes the burden off the family.
It is a gift that your aging parents can give to you and your siblings by clarifying their desires upfront. YOU don’t have to make the decision and avoid disagreements among family members
One caveat to these documents is that there are slight differences based on where you live.
For example, in California where I live. There is a single document called an “Advanced Healthcare Directive” that address both who you want to make your medical decisions (medical power of attorney) as well as how you want your medical treatment to be administered (living will). Please consult a lawyer that is familiar with these legal documents within your state.
As I stated earlier, lead by example. Get your legal paperwork first before approaching your parents.
This is already a sensitive topic, you want to smooth the process as much as possible.
When selecting a lawyer, ask if your parents know any of their friends that went through this process. This is a good starting place.
When I asked my parents they already had a person they could contact. Many of their friends had already used the same lawyer
Finally, be very respectful and sensitive when approaching this conversation. No-one wants to think about losing their ability to make independent decisions.
But the more you have these conversations in advance, you can minimize a lot of stress for everyone involved.
What do you think about preparing these documents? How do you think your aging parents will respond to your questions?
Also please note that I’m not a lawyer. Please consult a professional lawyer if you are looking for specific legal advice.