Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Can I Protect My Elderly Parents?

Estate planning requires the ability to be realistic about current health and assets, while considering the inevitable changes to come. For adults with aging parents, having a well-thought out estate plan, regardless of the size of the estate, becomes more urgent as the time to use the documents draws closer. A recent article, “Accessing needs of aging parents,” from The News-Enterprise explains the steps adult children need to take to protect their parents.

There are four key factors to consider: medical needs, housing and care needs, finances and legal needs. All require candid, non-emotional assessments.

Start with medical, housing and care needs. Consider the next five years. Is it likely their medical condition may decline? How will their present home work, if they are unable to manage steps or need to sleep and toilet on the same level? If their home is not conducive for aging in place, will they consider moving to a better situation—or can they afford to make any changes?

Next, examine health and care needs. Do they have long-term care insurance or do they expect to apply for Medicaid? If one spouse will need memory care or one spouse dies, will the surviving spouse have the resources needed to remain in home and receive the care they need? An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to evaluate their financial situation with regard to becoming eligible for Medicaid, if this will be needed. There is a five-year look-back period for Medicaid, so advance action is necessary to protect assets.

Do they have any estate planning documents in place? Is there a will, and when was it prepared? Ask any estate planning attorney how many times seniors have told their children a will exists, only for the children to learn the will is forty years old, woefully out of date and declared invalid by the probate court. Deceased individuals may be listed as agents for Power of Attorney and Medical Power of Attorney. Funds left for heirs may no longer exist. Laws for power of attorney may not include required provisions as a result of changes to the law.

More complicated issues may exist. If appreciated real estate property has been deeded to loved ones to protect the property from nursing home costs, are the beneficiaries prepared to pay the resulting taxes? If deeded real estate property was intentionally left unrecorded, transferring property could become a legal quagmire.

The best solution is to have an experienced estate planning attorney meet with the parents, review any existing documents and prepare an updated set of documents to achieve the parent’s goals, protect them in case of medical emergencies and allow parents and children to gain the peace of mind of knowing they are ready for the future. This includes a will, power of attorney, health care power of attorney, HIPAA release, living will and, depending upon the situation, may also include trusts.

Reference: The Times-Enterprise (Nov. 5, 2022) “Accessing needs of aging parents”

Can We Prevent the Elderly from Being Scammed?

Just as parents guide their children through adulthood and teach them about finances and how to manage their money, adult children of aging parents need to be alert for their parents before they fall victim to those preying on the elderly. It’s become all too common, according to the article “The Best Way to Protect a Parent from Scammers” from Kiplinger.

There are a few common scams seen across the country. One is to call an elderly person and tell them their beloved grandchild has been arrested and cash needs to be sent immediately to get them out of jail. The grandparents are told the child has told the police not to call the parents, so the call is secret. No police department calls grandparents with a demand for cash, but in the stress of the moment, flustered people often comply.

Another is a thief posing as an IRS agent and telling a surviving spouse that their deceased spouse owed thousands in back taxes and penalties. The senior is told to make a payment or risk being arrested.  There is also the scammer claiming to be from the DEA and warning the person their Social Security number and credit card were used to rent a car found abandoned near the Mexican border with suitcases stuffed with drugs. The person is told they need to verify their information to clear their record, or they’ll be arrested for drug trafficking. The voice is always very convincing.

Elderly victims are vulnerable for several reasons. One, the generation preceding the boomers was taught to trust others, especially people in positions of authority. As people age, their ability to think clearly when a dramatic and unexpected piece of bad news is easily shaken. Someone who would otherwise never have given out their personal information or sent cash or purchased gift cards becomes overwhelmed and complies with the scammer.

Taking control of a parent’s financial life is a hard step for both the aging parents and the adult children. No one wants to lose their independence and freedom, nor do adult children want to see their parents becoming vulnerable to thieves. However, at a certain point, adult children need to become involved to protect their parents.

A General Durable Power of Attorney (POA) is a legal document giving another person, typically an adult child, the power to act on behalf of another person immediately, once the document has been signed. It may not be effective in stopping a parent from giving money to a scammer, since the parents still have control of their money. fI transactions are done online, the bank may not have an alert set up for questionable transactions.

That said, having a POA in place and alerting the bank to its use will give the financial institution more freedom to be in touch with an adult child about their parent’s accounts, if fraud is suspected.

Guardianship or conservator is another way to address this issue, although it is far more invasive and brings the court system into the life of the person who becomes a “ward” and requires regular reporting. Guardianship is usually sought when the aging parent is incapacitated.

While we often think of trusts as a means of passing wealth to the next generation, they are also useful for protecting people in general and seniors in particular from scammers. When an adult child or other trusted person becomes the trustee, they gain complete control of the assets in the trust. If the aging parent is a trustee, they have control but someone else can step in if necessary. The co-trustee can see any changes in spending habits or unusual activity and take immediate action, without the delay that applying for guardianship would create.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about your unique situation to learn which of these solutions would be appropriate for your loved ones.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 25, 2022) “The Best Way to Protect a Parent from Scammers”

Can Elder Financial Abuse Be Stopped?

The numbers are chilling. One in ten Americans age 60+ has experienced elder abuse. One of the most common forms of elder abuse is financial, says a recent article from Forbes titled “What Is Elder Financial Abuse—And How Do We Prevent It?”

Financial elder abuse is defined as when someone illegally or improperly uses an elderly person’s money for their own use. Elderly people are easy victims for obvious reasons. They may be mentally vulnerable, suffering from Alzheimer’s or other form of dementia. They may also be lonely and find the company of a new “friend” is so delightful that it impairs their judgement.

Financial elder abuse occurs most often from adult children, but also in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Be on the watch for those new friends who enter senior’s lives, especially if they seek to limit contact with family members.

Caregivers or nursing staff have access to resident’s possessions, including checkbooks, ATM cards and credit cards. Monitoring an aging parent’s bank accounts on a regular basis should be part of caregiving by adult children. Unusual transactions, large withdrawals or unlikely purchases by credit card should immediately be reported to their bank or credit card company.

Less obvious and harder to track, is when someone forces a nursing home resident to sign legal documents transferring ownership of homes, cars, bank accounts and even investment accounts. They may also be pressured into creating a new will.

Here are some red flags to watch for:

  • New names being added to bank accounts or on credit cards.
  • Finding unpaid bills, letters from collection agencies or past due notices from creditors, especially when the person has sufficient funds.
  • Relatives who suddenly show up and want to be involved with an aging senior, including estranged children.
  • The unexpected transfer of any kind of asset to someone who is not a family member.
  • Any change in habits concerning money, including someone who was never worried about money suddenly being concerned about paying bills.

The elderly are often scared to report being victimized. They may fear further loss of control over their lives or be embarrassed to have been scammed. If a caregiver is stealing, they may also be physically threatened, or frightened of losing their familiar care provider.

Talk to your estate planning attorney, speak with the local Adult Protective Services office, or contact the National Elder Fraud Hotline, if you are concerned about a loved one being financially exploited.  If you believe a loved one is in physical danger, contact the local police. Don’t hesitate to ask for help.

Reference: Forbes (Nov. 9, 2021) “What Is Elder Financial Abuse—And How Do We Prevent It?”

Aging Parents and Blended Families Create Estate Planning Challenges

Law school teaches about estate planning and inheritance, but experience teaches about family dynamics, especially when it comes to blended families with aging parents and step siblings. Not recognizing the realities of stepsibling relationships can put an estate plan at risk, advises the article “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?” from Forbes. The estate plan has to be designed with realistic family dynamics in mind.

Trouble often begins when one parent loses the ability to make decisions. That’s when trusts are reviewed for language addressing what should happen, if one of the trustees becomes incapacitated. This also occurs in powers of attorney, health care directives and wills. If the elderly person has been married more than once and there are step siblings, it’s important to have candid discussions. Putting all of the adult children into the mix because the parents want them to have equal involvement could be a recipe for disaster.

Here’s an example: a father develops dementia at age 86 and can no longer care for himself. His younger wife has become abusive and neglectful, so much so that she has to be removed from the home. The father has two children from a prior marriage and the wife has one from a first marriage. The step siblings have only met a few times, and do not know each other. The father’s trust listed all three children as successors, and the same for the healthcare directive. When the wife is removed from the home, the battle begins.

The same thing can occur with a nuclear family but is more likely to occur with blended families. Here are some steps adult children can take to protect the whole family:

While parents are still competent, ask who they would want to take over, if they became disabled and cannot manage their finances. If it’s multiple children and they don’t get along, address the issue and create the necessary documents with an estate planning attorney.

Plan for the possibility that one or both parents may lose the ability to make decisions about money and health in the future.

If possible, review all the legal documents, so you have a complete understanding of what is going to happen in the case of incapacity or death. What are the directions in the trust, and who are the successor trustees? Who will have to take on these tasks, and how will they be accomplished?

If there are any questions, a family meeting with the estate planning attorney is in order. Most experienced estate planning attorneys have seen just about every situation you can imagine and many that you can’t. They should be able to give your family guidance, even connecting you with a social worker who has experience in blended families, if the problems seem unresolvable.

Reference: Forbes (June 28, 2021) “Could Your Aging Parents’ Estate Plan Create A Nightmare For Step-Siblings?”

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