Planning for the legal and financial future is critical for those with Alzheimer’s disease and their families and caregivers. The costs associated with Alzheimer’s disease—including medical bills, costs of prescriptions, nursing care and long-term care—can add up and quickly drain personal savings. It's important to have your legal matters such as a will and powers of attorney settled before the disease progresses.
Legal and Financial Planning for Alzheimer's
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, ideally you've planned certain legal and financial matters in advance, such as:
- Completing a will
- Having a power of attorney
- Arranging for long-term care
If those and other legal and financial protections are not in place, you and your family member should move quickly to get certain protections in order.
How to Manage Your Legal and Financial Matters
Take Action While You Can
The legal competency rule means that a person must be considered competent in the eyes of the law to make decisions regarding legal and financial matters, such as preparing one’s will.
People in the early stages of Alzheimer’s may be quite competent (that is, still able to understand and make decisions about their own legal or financial affairs). A court does not automatically assume that an Alzheimer’s patient is legally incompetent. However, a competent patient with a recent Alzheimer’s diagnosis must not delay putting legal and financial protections in place before the disease progresses further.
If someone is in the more advanced stages of the disease, a court may determine that he or she is legally incompetent. If so, and there is agreement, the person's family or friends may be able to manage affairs. But the court may appoint a surrogate to legally act on behalf of the person with Alzheimer’s.
Create Durable Powers of Attorney
The competent individual should establish two types of durable power of attorney:
- Durable power of attorney for health care: Sometimes known as a living will, this type of power of attorney allows the patient to appoint a trusted person to make health care decisions for the patient when he or she can no longer do so. These decisions cover both minor and major medical issues, including life support and end-of-life care, and may contain a “Do Not Resuscitate” order. The patient’s physician should have a copy of this document.
- Durable power of attorney for finances: This type enables a person to authorize a family member, friend or professional to act as an agent or proxy once he or she becomes incapacitated. This individual makes financial decisions on behalf of the Alzheimer’s patient in areas like banking, investments, tax, and retirement.
If these powers of attorney were not named before the individual became incapacitated, a court may have to establish a conservator for financial matters. (The conservator does not make health decisions.) This process can be very slow and expensive. That's one of many reasons that it’s best to establish durable powers of attorney as soon as possible while the Alzheimer’s patient is capable of handling his or her affairs.
People with Alzheimer's may want to establish a living trust, which must be done while the person is still alive. The person designates someone to serve as the trustee, who manages trust assets and then ensures their proper distribution after the patient’s death.
Have a Will in Place
A will details how an individual’s assets and estate will be divided upon his or her death. A person must be of sound mind to make a will, so it’s best to have a will in place before a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.
For the newly diagnosed Alzheimer’s patient, determine whether a will has been completed and is up to date. If there is no will but the patient is still legally competent, he or she will need to move quickly to have one completed.
If a person dies with no will, then the state will determine how assets should be distributed—typically to spouses, children, or other family members.
Get Good Legal Advice
A lawyer can help interpret state laws, draft and update necessary documents, and ensure that the wishes of the patient are followed.
You may have a trusted family lawyer to advise you. Another option is an attorney who specializes in elder law. This is an expert on the legal issues of aging, including:
- Long-term care
- Estate planning
How to Find a Lawyer
If you don't already have an attorney, here are some ways to find one:
- Ask family members and friends for their recommendations for attorneys.
- Check your state's Area Agency on Aging for an agency in your area to provide referrals for legal advice.
- Search the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys' directory of elder law specialists.
- Find information on locating lawyers and services in your area at the American Bar Association's (ABA) Consumers' Guide to Legal Help.
- Learn more about the legal issues of aging at the ABA's Commission on Law and Aging.
- Contact your state and local bar associations to get names of attorneys.
- Find low-cost legal assistance at a state legal aid society at Lawhelp.org.
If you cannot afford a private attorney, some attorneys offer sliding scale fees for their services.
Gather Specific Documentation to Make Financial Decisions
The Alzheimer’s patient, his or her caregiver, and family members should gather all information on all options for payment: government benefits programs like Medicare or veterans’ benefits, private insurance, personal savings, loans, or any contributions from family members.
Start by collecting specific documentation for the person with Alzheimer’s, to help determine assets and options for payment, and to assist with applications for various services.
- The person’s name, address, and Social Security Number
- Types of insurance and their policy numbers, including Medicare, life, health, home, and automobile
- Names and phone numbers of lawyers, financial advisors, or accountants
- Information on all sources of income, including pension plans or stock certificates
- Tax records
- Information on credit cards and outstanding debts or money owed to the individual
Once all information is gathered, the person with Alzheimer’s and caregivers or family members should review all available options before coming to a decision on how to pay for future costs.