Dear Mr. Premack: I am approaching my 60’s and have what I think is a problem which is more common that many people would expect. I am unmarried, have no children, have no siblings, and my parents are deceased. I am aging solo. Yes, because I didn’t have children, I am financially stable. I also have a few close friends who are near my age. I just don’t know how to plan for the future, when someday I may become ill, need a caregiver, need a financial assistant, and someday need to leave my remaining assets to someone when I die. As a Certified Elder Law Attorney, do you have any suggestions or resources for people like me who are aging solo? – H. B.
Aging without a traditional support system is a growing challenge to our society. The most common caregivers are close family members – spouses or children. An increasing number of individuals are “elder orphans” without that traditional support system. Whether you have a supportive family or you are aging solo, the key to your long-term care is preplanning.
As individuals, we all have the legal right to control our own finances and our own medical care. While we are capable and competent, we can make those decisions for ourselves. As we grow older, the risk of incapacity grows. Sometimes we are slowed by dementia, sometimes by heart issues or other slow-onset medical issues. It is vitally important, while still strong and capable, to make arrangements for your future.
Those arrangements should include a) Durable Power of Attorney to select Agents who can assist with your finances, b) Advance Medical Directives (like Medical Power of Attorney to select Agents to interface with doctors and hospitals, and Directives to Physicians regarding life support choices), c) Appointment of an agent to authorize with funeral arrangements, and d) Plans to distribute your remaining assets upon your death.
The difference between those with traditional support systems versus those who are aging solo is the pool of people available and willing to step into the caretaker role. Ideally you should choose one primary Agent and at least two alternative Agents who could step in if your primary choice is unable to act due to illness, other stresses, or death. The spouse, children, or siblings may be natural traditional choices assuming that you have a close and trusting relationship. Adult Orphans / Solos lack those relations, so what are their alternatives?
First, you can work to establish a network of interdependent friends. You must be very careful with whom you place your trust and to whom you give legal authority. Long term friends may be trustworthy, or they may not share the same life choice decisions as you. Beware the charming person who you met recently; you do not want to be a victim to a scam artist who preys on people in your situation.
Second, paid professional assistance is available. You can ask your bank if it has a trust division, then have your lawyer draft a Living Trust which states that, should you become incapacitated, that bank will professionally manage your resources and pay your bills per the instructions you provide in the trust agreement. For adult orphans with means, the trust department at their bank would be acting as fiduciary. IF you select a reputable local institution, they can be a tremendous resource.
Finally, whether you are a senior now or someday hope to be, whether solo or not, if you have made no plans know you may end up in court if you become incapacitated. This is the worst-case scenario. The court will supervise your caregiver (Guardian) in a way that makes the process slow, expensive, unlikely to follow the life-choices you would have made, and intrusive. Professional guardians do exist, but they are few in number so you may end up with a volunteer Guardian. Plan ahead to avoid this scenario by building your own estate plan, your own network, and finding your own professional assistance.
Paul Premack is a Certified Elder Law Attorney, handling Wills and Trusts, Probate, and Elder Law issues. He is licensed to practice law in Texas and Washington.