As family members age, they often become more reliant on us to help them with their lives. When Grandma and Grandpa need help mowing the lawn, changing light bulbs, or lifting heavy boxes, the solution is easy: Drive over and help, and if the kids are old enough, bring them, too. And creative problem-solving can keep everyone happy. The summer before my fifth-grade year, I spent a few hours a week helping my friend Melissa’s grandma with household chores. She paid us a grand total of one dollar an hour each, and we were actually happy with that, mainly because it was enough money to keep our candy stash plentiful. It was a good summer, indeed.
But when your elderly relative needs help with finances, selling a home, or even making medical decisions, the solutions are a bit trickier. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Respect their wishes. First and foremost, if your aging relative is able to handle financial paperwork and decisions and does not want your help, you ultimately must accept that answer. You may not like the idea of your parents spending their retirement on a new beach house on the Outer Banks, but it’s their decision, not yours. You can certainly offer input, letting them know when you are concerned that their choices might hurt them in the long run. As long as they have capacity, however, they are legally entitled to make their own decisions.
2. Talk to them about getting their legal affairs in order. If your relative is still able to handle finances, now is the time to get legal paperwork drawn up to prepare for the future. Again, you have no legal standing to force them to do so, but share with them your concerns. Getting powers of attorney and trust documents set up now means that their wishes will be reflected in the use of those documents. Talk to your relative about seeking guidance from an attorney, but respect that the decisions are still legally theirs to make.
3. If your relative is already incapacitated, search for estate planning documents. If a grandparent or other loved one suffers from dementia or is otherwise unable to handle their affairs, first inquire into whether or not they had legal documents drawn up when they had capacity to do so. A safe deposit box would be a good place to start, and try checking the file cabinet at their home as well. If you know their attorney, call him or her, and explain the situation. A good set of estate planning documents will dictate how to determine incapacity and who may be notified in the event of incapacity.
4. If there are no legal documents in place, and your relative is incapacitated, consider a conservatorship. A conservator is someone who is appointed, by a judge, to handle another person’s financial and property affairs in the event of incapacity. A conservatorship removes a person’s right to make his or her own decisions, and, as such, should only be considered as a last resort. Establishing a conservatorship can be a complicated process, so your best bet would be to consult with an attorney.
As our loved ones age, we are often instilled with the responsibility to help them with their financial affairs. Whatever form that decision-making power takes, be sure to keep their best interests at heart. It’s legally required, but, more importantly, it’s the right thing to do.