Before Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, I never thought about the legal issues and costs that might arise. I thought we were covered because both my parents had completed the big three legal documents: a durable power of attorney for health care, a directive to physician/living will, and a statutory durable power of attorney.
But then in September 2005, Mom’s memory loss had an official name, Alzheimer’s disease, and due to her bad lungs and failing mind, she had a new residence: a secure unit in a nursing home. And that meant that we were at the point where Dad was going to need to sell the house in their West Texas hometown in order to move to College Station in the east.
A friend who had just received a law degree told me that to sell the house, my father needed to take an additional legal step – to obtain a guardianship of Mom. Dad contacted a lawyer and began that process. And I learned about some disconcerting issues related to the legal profession and Alzheimer’s disease. These issues came back to me while reading the New York Times article, “Elder Care Costs Deplete Savings of a Generation,” which described how one interviewee spent $50,000 in lawyers’ fees to win a contested guardianship. I don’t know the issues related to this interviewee’s contested guardianship, but I know that Dad could have been facing rapidly escalating fees in trying to do the right thing.
In our situation, the judge appointed an attorney to represent my mother in the guardianship case. The court-appointed attorney then went along with my dad to visit my mom in the secure unit of the nursing home. This attorney also went back for a second visit alone with Mom. Both days were good ones for Mom – she was able to answer questions in a complete manner and to interact with her lawyer. And after those two visits, the court-appointed attorney decided that he would contest the guardianship because Mom was capable of handling her financial issues.
Mind you, the attorney made this decision to contest the guardianship solely on his opinion without talking to other key sources. I finally called this attorney to provide some feedback about Mom’s condition since I was the person responsible for the daily caregiving issues since my Dad was still living in West Texas. I reminded this attorney that I was not part of this guardianship case (my father had hired the other lawyer), so I thought he needed to have additional information from my perspective. In my conversation with this attorney, I shared stories of Mom’s memory loss and paranoia, making sure that what I told could be corroborated by a second person if necessary. I told the attorney that my mother had recently acknowledged that she didn’t remember that I visited her every day (even though I came at the same time daily). Even after this 45-minute conversation, the court-appointed attorney still thought Mom could handle her own affairs.
How this attorney could make this decision really confuses and distresses me. I did a little homework on this situation. I confirmed with Mom’s primary care physician that he had never been contacted by the court-appointed attorney. This attorney never spoke to my cousin, who is a stockbroker and who handles some of my mother’s accounts, or to my brother, who had visited Mom several times after her diagnosis and placement in the nursing home. And I strongly suspect (but never confirmed) that the attorney also did not talk to the nurses or aides who cared for Mom on a daily basis in the secure unit. Instead, the attorney based his decision to contest the guardianship on his two visits with Mom.
My father decided not to go any further in this legal case because he was worried about the mounting attorney fees (since we would have to pay the court-appointed attorney’s fees). Instead, Dad managed to find a way (legally) to sell the house without obtaining the guardianship. The lesson I learned from this situation is to be really careful about interactions with lawyers, and to make sure that I do my homework so I can hold them accountable for what actions they plan to take related to my family’s well-being.
Published On: January 16, 2007