Help during the most stressful time of life

Nancy McDonald knew she needed help, but didn’t know where to turn. Her aging parents were in a nursing home, and their savings was disappearing fast. They had lived a modest life, working hard to save, but it just wasn’t going to be enough. It looked like the legacy that was so important for them to leave behind would be gone. McDonald shared her concerns with a co-worker who suggested she meet with an attorney she knew from church.

Through a very different scenario, Jennifer Johnson’s grandparents had handled money wisely their entire lives. They didn’t have any debt, avoided credit cards and saved for the future. Her grandmother peacefully passed away in her favorite chair, gazing out the window. Her grandfather’s decline, however, was much slower, beginning with chest pain and a quintuple bypass. During this time, Johnson’s uncle and his estranged wife, who lived across the country, took turns asking for money every month. Johnson’s mother had medical and financial powers of attorney for her grandfather, but in a desperate attempt to get money, Johnson’s uncle started questioning every move her mother made. Soon, he and his wife moved into the family estate rent-free.

These types of situations unfold every day, with families struggling to care for aging loved ones, pay for that care and salvage a legacy to leave behind. Family farms are lost, and family relationships are broken under the stress of difficult decisions and a lack of effective planning.

When McDonald walked into the offices of Edwards Group LLC: Estate Planning & Elder Law in Springfield, she wasn’t sure what to expect. The team of elder law professionals was able to alleviate her stress by helping her apply for benefits to help pay for her parents’ nursing care, protect a portion of their life savings, and smooth out the wrinkles that frequently pop up in the last decade of life.

Life care planning is a new and emerging area of practice. This type of planning encompasses more than funeral arrangements and wills. David Edwards, an attorney with the group, says, “Each stage has its own unique goals and challenges. Some families may skip stages; others may move forward and back as health improves or declines.”

Identifying which stage you and your parents are in can help you know what steps need taken to reduce stress, preserve hard-earned life savings and keep property in the family.

Stage #1: Healthy, but looking ahead for maximum benefit.

People are still completely independent – living on their own, driving, handling finances, volunteering and maybe even still working. They are likely 10-15 years away from needing care.

What to do in this stage: Keep your estate plan updated, including your will and powers of attorney. Review asset titling and beneficiary designations. Consider a “nest egg trust” for future asset protection. Also, consider creating a revocable living trust.

Stage #2: Not as young as you used to be.

People continue to experience independence – driving, shopping and paying their own bills. But they also start to lean more on family for help or decision-making. Increased health concerns can also start popping up.

What to do in this stage: Keep your estate plan updated, including your will and powers of attorney. Consider a “nest egg trust” for future asset protection. Be aware of upcoming care needs that may affect legal and financial options.

Stage #3: Needing additional help.

Memory may be fading. Often, people will need help with meals and housework, or have already moved into an independent living facility. Driving will also become an issue as people limit driving to daytime or may have stopped driving altogether.

What to do in this stage: Plan for looming care needs. They may qualify for veteran’s benefits. It’s vitally important at this point to plan ahead for possible Medicaid benefits.

Stage #4: Declining, but still at home.

Substantial assistance is needed if loved ones are still at home. They are no longer driving. They need daily assistance like dressing, getting up, eating – maybe even using the bathroom or bathing.

What to do in this stage: Plan for impending care needs. Explore all options for assistance, including veteran’s benefits and Medicaid benefits. Make sure finances are managed well, bills are paid on time and someone is acting as an advocate, so seniors aren’t taken advantage of by others.

Stage #5: Declining and in assisted living or the hospital.

Caring for loved ones becomes too much for the family, and the agonizing choice to seek outside help is taking place. Loved ones may be in and out of the hospital with serious health issues at this point. There are concerns that those with quickly declining health will require a higher level of care very soon.

What to do in this stage: Review veterans’ benefit options. Consider a financial plan – will income be enough to cover monthly expenses? How long will assets last? Contact an experienced elder law attorney for help with nursing home and Medicaid qualification.

Stage #6: In crisis, either in the hospital or nursing home.

Hospital stays and rehab can be common. Loved ones are not likely to return home. Without advanced planning, the family is in crisis mode scrambling to gather resources to pay for care and find a suitable place for their loved one to receive care.

What to do in this stage: Immediately engage in crisis planning to help maximize veteran or Medicaid benefits while protecting assets. It is rarely “too late” to do anything.

As Johnson’s grandfather continued to slowly decline, eventually developing Alzheimer’s, his life savings dwindled. After his death, the relationship between Johnson’s mother and her brother deteriorated even further with Johnson’s uncle taking her mother to court, challenging her executorship and keeping the estate in probate for years. Eventually, all remaining money went to attorneys, and the special family land Johnson’s grandfather had bought after returning from World War II was sold for a fraction of its worth. Johnson’s mother and her brother no longer have a relationship. Much of this sad situation could have been alleviated with assistance from an elder law firm.

McDonald can’t say enough about the help she received from the estate planning attorneys and elder law benefit coordinators, “They helped me through the most stressful time of my life. I could not believe the amount of time it took to gather all the paperwork we needed. It takes an emotional toll. It was huge having someone there every step of the way.” Through planning, she was able to save some of the legacy that was so important to her parents. She was also able to pay for their care and create a plan that could anticipate future problems, eliminating considerable stress. She wants everyone to know, “There is help out there. There are things you can do to make this difficult time in life easier. And the sooner you start planning, the better it will be.”

Edwards Group is solely dedicated to estate planning and the issues people face in each stage of life.