Take Care of Legal Issues Now, and Eliminate Stress Down the Road

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • I accompanied my dad to court today to complete the first step in gaining guardianship over my mom’s business affairs. Fortunately, all of her other legal paperwork is in order, but it took an unfortunate medical circumstance (which turned out to be fortunate) to force that issue.

    My parents had completed their first version of wills, but had put off completing other important paperwork. In 2003, my dad was diagnosed with blocked carotid arteries and had to be scheduled for surgery. My parents lived in West Texas, but Mom didn’t want my dad to have surgery there. So the alternate location that was selected was Austin, where we had a community of family and friends to provide support.
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    My dad’s diagnosis and impending surgery allowed my cousin and I to put pressure on my parents to complete their legal affairs. Prior to that, both had stalled in getting this important task done. Once we were able to get my parents to agree that it was time to handle these affairs, my cousin contacted a lawyer he knew, who agreed to meet with my parents on short notice.

    Both of my parents worked with the attorney to complete:
    - A durable power of attorney for health care, which names a designee to make health care decisions if the signer can not make those decisions, based on an opinion of his/her physician.
    - A directive to physician/living will, which states the person’s desires related to the performance of life-sustaining procedures when death is imminent; and
    - A statutory durable power of attorney, which names a designee to serve as an agent to handle personal business decisions upon the signer’s incapacitation.

    These three documents are based on Texas law; you should check with the requirements in your state or nation. Mom already suffered some short term memory loss when she signed these papers, but was still capable of handling her personal and business affairs. However, my parents also began working on a revised will in 2003, but never signed these wills. Now, because of Mom’s condition, she cannot sign her new will which had her latest wishes.

    Over this weekend, I visited with Jackie, a friend who is a lawyer. I asked Jackie what would have happened if Mom had not completed these documents before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and was placed in the nursing home. Jackie said that there were legal procedures that were available to transfer both types of power of attorney to the next of kin.

    Jackie also noted that a possible crisis that could arise out of this scenario. She said that if Mom had not completed the living will, another family member who would get legal authority would have determined any life-sustaining measures. This situation potentially could have led to issues similar to those in Terri Schiavo’s case, which pitted family members against each other about whether to discontinue life support.

    I’m very relieved that Mom made her own decision about her wishes and her life, and has lifted those potential burdens from my family. I encourage you to talk to think about these issues with your loved one as soon as possible and try to get these types of legal documents completed and placed in a safe location (such as a safe deposit box). Caring for someone with Alzheimer’s is stressful in itself; getting the legal issues in line eliminates one tremendous stressor that you don’t need.
Published On: May 26, 2006