As you assume more responsibility for your aging parents, you need to know many details that you had not been privy to earlier in life. You will become involved in their financial affairs, their medical care, their nutritional needs, and making sure they are getting social interaction. 

One of the first steps you should take is to find out where all of their legal documents are, and make sure they obtain any documents they may need in the future.

Here are some of the documents you may need in caring for your parents.

The power of attorney allows you to decide if your parent should be admitted or discharged to a medical facility or nursing home and what medicines or treatment regimens may be used.

One reason why it’s important to obtain a durable power of attorney for health care before it is needed is so your parent can include their wishes in the document for things like do not resuscitate (DNR) orders, organ donation, or directives specific to their condition. That way, you know you are doing what they want when it comes time. 

A health care power of attorney should include a HIPAA release giving you access to their medical records and allowing you to decide who else can access records.

As an agent for your parent, you cannot be held liable for any decisions you make on their behalf.  Your parent may also give power of attorney to more than one person, so you can share the responsibility with other family members. If your parent should get married after signing a power of attorney, the document becomes void, unless their new spouse had already been named as their agent. 

A living will is also different from a regular will because it is used while your parent is still alive and only applies to life-threatening or end-of-life medical treatment. 

The living will covers decisions such as whether your parent wants a feeding tube if he or she can no longer feed themselves, what should happen if they can no longer breathe on their own, what types of pain medications can be used, whether they want a DNR order or DNI (do not intubate) and whether they want to donate their organs.

The living will comes into effect when your parent can no longer communicate his or her wishes. If they regain the ability to make decisions, the living will is no longer in effect.

States have varying guidelines for handling living wills and may call them Advance Health Care Directives or Directive to Physicians, so check with a local legal representative for more information.

Having a will can greatly reduce the strain on surviving family members of having to decide who gets what. Even if the assets are of sentimental value rather than monetary value, dividing them up can be stressful. 

Most people use a revocable living trust. Revocable means they can make changes in their directives, or revoke the trust, if they wish. A revocable living trust is usually used when the grantor’s financial and property holdings are substantial, or they have complex business interests. As with a will, it does not override beneficiaries on life insurance policies or retirement accounts.

There are benefits of a trust over a will. A living trust can come into play before your parent’s death, in the event of mental incapacitation. Also, a living trust does not go through probate like a will, so the terms of the trust can be executed faster. Unlike a will, a trust does not become part of the public record, so your parent’s privacy is maintained. 

There are cases when both a trust and a will are needed. For example, if your parent’s trust covers financial assets, but not physical property, then a will can cover what is left out of the trust.

Becoming involved in your parents day to day finances is often the first step into assuming greater responsibility for their care, and it may be the most difficult for them. They may have been raised to consider their finances a very private matter, or they may have a hard time accepting that they need the help of their adult children, so a gradual and gentle approach may be best.

The power of attorney can be written to become effective immediately, or if your parent isn’t ready for that, it can become effective at such a time that a physician declares them incapable of making their own decisions. 

If necessary, you might start out by having them add you to their checking account so you can help with bill paying and making deposits or transfers, and work towards adding all financial accounts. 

As mentioned, states have differing guidelines for some of these documents, so you may find slightly different terms in your state. 

In addition to these legal documents, you should know where your parent’s keep their important paperwork. Here is a checklist of items you might need to keep track of.

Keep original documents in a safe place such as a fire safe, safety deposit box or locked filing cabinet, and keep copies of everything. Preparation can greatly ease any anxiety you or your aging parents may experience in the event of a medical emergency as well as making day to day decisions. 

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