In the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, a person likely retains the ability to think clearly and make legal decisions on their own behalf. Unfortunately, we know that those capabilities diminish over time with these diseases. This is why it is important that those newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other dementias create or update their estate planning documents right away.
Besides ensuring that the individual’s financial, health care and end-of-life wishes are carried out, estate planning can help the person and his or her family with current issues and prepare for what’s to come.
The National Institute on Aging, a division of the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, recommends working with a qualified elder law attorney for estate planning after a cognitive disease diagnosis. Elder law attorneys, like those at Timothy Rice Estate & Elder Law Firm, help older adults and their families understand the laws that impact estate planning, their financial options and plan for the future.
Here are the four essential documents for a person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia:
- Power of Attorney. A power of attorney allows the appointment of another person to make decisions should the individual become incapacitated. Without this document, families may be unable to pay the person’s bills or manage their household without going to court and getting a guardianship, which can be a time-consuming and expensive process.
- Health Care Proxy. A health care proxy, like a power of attorney, allows the appointment of another to act as the individual’s representative for medical decisions. It ensures that the individual’s medical treatment instructions are carried out. In general, a health care proxy takes effect only when the individual requires medical treatment, and a physician determines he or she is unable to communicate their own wishes concerning treatment.
- Advance Medical Directive or Living Will. Medical directives and living wills explain what type of care the individual would like if he or she is unable to direct their own care. A medical directive can include a health care proxy, or it can be a separate document. It may contain directions to refuse or remove life support in the event the individual is in a coma or a vegetative state, or it may provide instructions to use all efforts to keep the individual alive, no matter the circumstances.
- Will and Other Estate Planning Documents. An estate plan directs who will receive a deceased person’s property. Once an individual is deemed incapacitated, he or she will no longer be able to create an estate plan because the person must have “testamentary capacity” — meaning the individual must understand the implications of these legal documents before signing them. A plan usually consists of a Will, and often a trust as well. A Will is a legally binding statement on who should receive the person’s property, while a trust is a mechanism for passing on property outside of probate.
It may be difficult, but discussions with loved ones should begin immediately after an Alzheimer’s or related dementia diagnosis. If an estate plan is already in place, a diagnosis is a good time to review it to ensure it still accurately reflects the person’s wishes and accounts for the new medical, legal and financial challenges that come with these diseases.