by Samuel V. Butcher, Esq
Estate planning – the creation of wills, trusts, powers of attorney for healthcare and financial matters, and consideration of end-of-life decision-making, is not all about what happens after you die. There is a narrative to each of our lives. The most important part of your planning may be how your story plays out during your lifetime; not after your gone. That’s why, at Butcher Elder Law, we plan with our clients for three stages: (1) when you’re alive and well, (2) when something happens – a serious illness or injury, and (3) when you pass away. We always say that the only problem with the alive and well stage is that no one thinks it’s ever going to change. Yet we all know that our life on this earth doesn’t last forever and life-changing events often occur suddenly, without warning, and when they are least expected.
After many years of experience helping individuals and families create their estate plans, I’ve made some observations that I consider worth sharing. The first, is that many of our clients waited too long to do their planning. When they finally realize the importance of protecting their assets, particularly against the high cost of long-term care, they have already faced a decline in health and risk not making it through Medicaid’s five-year lookback period. This five-year period applies when they gift assets to an irrevocable trust for safekeeping and protection of a spouse and other dependents. We can still help these clients protect a significant portion of their wealth (on average 40 to 60 percent, sometimes more), though we could have protected all their savings if they had taken the time to sit down and plan years earlier.
Second, while we have assisted many clients with what we refer to as “crisis planning” following a rapid decline in health or a traumatic event, it is often too late to prevent the chaos that occurs in families when planning has not already been done and important roles such as agents under powers of attorney for healthcare and financial matters, guardians, executors, and successor trustees have not been chosen. The same holds true when individuals do not do their own end-of-life decision making by executing a living will and discussing their preferences with loved ones and caregivers. You would be surprised how often two adult children with diametrically opposed opinions are each certain they know just what Mom or Dad wanted. Our goal is to help Mom and Dad both make sure that “all the players get along when the referee leaves the field.”
Third, is that the process of planning can be pleasant and even enjoyable when done under less stressful circumstances and result in peace of mind for those doing the planning as well as their family members. Our clients have often been pleasantly surprised to find that there are solutions to sensitive marital and family issues that may have caused them to put off planning. I often commend our clients for taking the time to plan when they can share a story and we can have a laugh or two while still taking care of some very important business.
All of which, brings me to one final observation. Many of our older clients have, over the years, expressed a desire to involve their adult children in the planning process. Some want to be sure that when they choose one child to be their power of attorney, executor, or successor trustee, they are not offending any of their other children. Others simply want the confirmation of their children that they are doing the right thing and making the right decisions with the plan they select, based on their own values, which is what we encourage and lead them to do. Too often, these adult children are off pursuing their careers and leading busy lives out-of-state and far from Mom and Dad. So, whether it’s the kids coming home or Mom and Dad traveling to their place, an opportunity will again arise for Mom and Dad to address the planning that may have been neglected. Don’t miss this opportunity to have the discussion about how Mom and/or Dad want their story to play out. Who will fill the roles that may be needed when Mom and Dad grow older, health declines, or they can’t continue to be as independent as they would like to be, and the help of family members and sometimes other caregivers is needed?
Legal documents will be needed to effectuate any plan, and we can help with those, but it all begins with the discussion. Take this time to start that discussion. We, at Butcher Elder Law, help seniors and their adult children navigate this landscape. We provide the legal documents, but that’s not all. We know what public benefits and other resources are available, to whom they are available, and how our clients can strategize to become eligible for benefits when needed. Let us help your loved ones and you prevent mistakes and preserve assets.