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Planning For The Unexpected As You Age – What You Need

The mistake we (my parents and I) made was to lovingly ignore age, focusing only on the fact that they were independent and seemed to be doing great. Who wanted to throw a big, damp blanket over the happy scene? That conversation could wait a bit longer, we all quietly thought.

To their credit, they did a lot right. They had already moved out of a big house a few years ago, invested well and set up trusts (one for them and a “special needs” trust for my sister). That seemed like enough.

They had sent me lists of accounts and asked a few questions about whether I would “take care of things” if they couldn’t. I knew the trust attorney’s name and had contact information. There were health directives.

It turns out that it would have been extremely advantageous to face the age reality and do more to prepare.

It turns out that the details are what we need to know, in order to help people when they need it.

Of course, illness and accidents happen to people at any age. This is really about what to do if unexpected life changes require other people to care for you, or you to care for others, so it’s really just life planning. Aging is often the catalyst for drawing up a life plan that we should all do far earlier and more comprehensively.

Some ideas for getting started:

1. Conversations you must have, like it or not – I remember how difficult it was to have unpleasant conversations about aspects of life we’d rather not think about, let alone talk about. Something changes when you are forced to deal with life events that require those conversations. Suddenly, the necessary conversations go from awkward and emotional to crucial and more neutral. That said, you may not be able to get the answers you need if you wait.

Having the conversations early, when you or your loved ones can clearly contribute (before anyone is in distress) is the time. Knowing what they would want in their later years, or if they have a compromising medical condition, is something you will wish you’d known if you have to make decisions on their behalf.

It will help them to think through options, discuss them and to make choices that they may not be able to make later. These conversations are for you and them.

Ask more detailed questions and have contingency plans. For example, if staying in their home is what they want, can their home accomodate a variety of physical limitations, how much caregiving could they have at home and for how long? Would a caregiver be able to sleep at their house? What would they (you) prefer if they couldn’t stay at home?

Again, offering ideas in the abstract is a start, but research what options exist for them and dig into the specifics, so the decisions are informed.

Money is a huge factor in home care, and there are creative and varied ways to go about it. Assume nothing. Discuss ideas and their cost, do research and manage expectations to put together an actionable plan. It’s important for everyone. Home care requires significant oversight and time on the part of a family member, so make sure that is discussed and taken into consideration.

Have the conversations you need to have and then go about normal life. The discussions provide insight and compatibility between those who might help you or be helped at some point, but they don’t change the relationship or the identity of the people involved.

2. Complete a life book for one who might take responsibility for your life. This is a book that includes the information one would need to jump in and run your daily life. Similar to the books people put together for AirBnb rentals that tell you how to operate their homes.

Some basics to include are obvious: bank accounts, regular expenses, automobile and home information, credit cards, loans, investments, trust documents, wills, insurances, health directives, medical histories, important contacts like doctors, estate attorneys, tax accountants, investment advisors, etc.

Other important items to disclose are safe deposit boxes, storage units, prescription lists, pharmacies, allergies to food or medication, social security numbers, vaccine records and anything else that is important for daily living or could go unnoticed in a transitional time.

Put everything you can think of into the book and then live for a month with this in mind. Be aware of what comes up that should be included. It won’t be too much, guaranteed! More is better. And, for the eventual user, they’d rather have something than nothing, so don’t wait until you have time to create the whole book at once. Begin it and work over time if that’s what it takes.

3. Passwords are everything – having usernames and passwords will make a transition smoother. If you need to take care of someone’s bills, and other administrative tasks and you can get online as them, you are way ahead of the game.

I realize that this is an inappropriate thing to tell people, but it saved my sanity. My parents had a password book. Being able to access online bill pay, healthcare portals, and even the IRS website allowed me to take care of business on their behalf without speaking to anyone, which was a blessing.

This only works if you can either use their computer or have access to their phone for security purposes, but it’s a huge relief, if you can.

It’s shocking how difficult it can be to pay a bill as a helper. No one will provide information you need, even balances due. I found myself begging people to let me pay them, so my parents wouldn’t lose service or credit cards, with poor results.

Having checks helps as well. Make sure the usernames, passwords and pin numbers are updated and legible and that a designated person knows where to find them.

4. Access to other people’s money. If you need to pay expenses for someone, how will you do that? Will you pay them yourself? If you are paying for another with their funds, you will need to make sure you know where the money is, how the account is funded and how you can access the money.

If you use their credit cards, will you be able to pay them when they are due? Simple question, but this can be more complicated than it sounds if you can’t access their accounts in a timely manner or see transactions.

Banks are sticklers. The easiest way to gain access is to be made a signer on the account. They are fairly old fashioned in this regard. When I wanted to become a signer on my parents account, the only way that was possible was if both came into the bank with me  – not possible.

Becoming a signer on accounts you will need to manage will allow you to avoid a great deal of pain and suffering.

If the money in the account you have access to should be depleted, what would fund the account?

Know all their income sources and the timing and amount of payments to them. Would you need to deposit checks, are they receiving automatic deposits? Get the full income picture, so you can maintain it for them and know what available funds there are for the planning we discussed above.
5. Obtain power of attorney early if you will need it to take care of someone in your life. It takes longer than you might expect to get it established. It’s a lengthy process of conversations with an attorney, legal papers to sign and notarize, and then it still doesn’t help much.

Having a legal POA doesn’t mean as much as you’d think. Every financial institution will have their own process that you have to go through, and their own rules for accessibility.

It took me a month to acquire the initial power of attorney from the trust attorney, and another month for our bank to approve it on their end. It was longer for the investment institutions like Schwab, who had a huge amount of documentation to complete, sign, notarize and move through their legal department before I could see any account information or discuss things with their broker.

Everything depends on how the account was initially set up and in whose names. There are accounts I’m still trying to gain access to because of how they were initially established. This gets complicated. Talk to your trust attorney and your institutions to understand the process and what your access will be, long before it’s needed.

There is no standardized “banking rule” you can rely on as one with POA. Banks do their own thing. One bank allowed full access once I had power of attorney through them. Sometimes however, the credit card access is different.

Bank of America, on the other hand, refused to grant me power of attorney after weeks of their legal team looking at the amended trust. I really have no idea why, but when I heard that I just decided we should close that account. Again, not possible without dragging my parents into the bank.

When I asked, the banker told me that even if I had been given power of attorney from their legal team, I would only be able to write checks from the account, nothing more, no online access at all. I’d be writing checks with no ability to see the account balance. No thanks, I’m still working on how to close that one.

Never assume that things will make sense. You’ll get through it all much easier.
6. Long term care insurance is full of surprises. This should be a blog of its own and will be at some point. Firstly, find out if your loved ones have coverage. Many do not.

Caregiving agencies and assisted living facilities get excited when they hear that you have it, and I picked up on their enthusiasm and felt very relieved initially upon learning that my parents had it.

That was short lived, as I ran into obstacles to figuring it out and discovered how difficult it is to activate.

Policies are all different, and often people sign up for them decades before they need them. By the time they need them, they remember little about what they opted into and what benefits they will receive or how.

As a first step, whoever might be assigned to care for you should be added to the carrier’s contact information, as a person they can talk to. They will only speak with the insured unless you do that and the insured may be in no position to speak to them.

Try to understand the policy way in advance of needing it. How long is the exclusion period (a waiting period that is not covered by them after they are eligible)? What constitutes eligibility? What will they cover after the exclusion period and what documentation will they need to provide coverage.

The big shocker was what they had us go through to prove eligibility. For most older people, who are no longer able to conduct the “activities of daily living,” going through the phone calls, paperwork and zoom assessments that prove one eligible, would be ridiculous.

If you have long term care insurance, make sure you’ve lined up the person who will be helping you to obtain your benefits, in the event you need them.

If you might be caring for someone who has it, have these discussions, understand the insurance and make sure that you can speak with the insurer. They will need that POA documentation as well to go forward with you, so do that first.

The benefits are limited (doled out over time) but helpful once they kick in. However, that can be months from a transitional incident, so plan accordingly and know exactly what to expect.

There is so much more to say, but this is a start to get you ready, or ready others for caretaking that could become necessary. It was extraordinarily time consuming and frustrating to piece it together and learn as I went through the stages. Advice and stories from others saved me and sharing what I learned will hopefully help you in some way.