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In the previous installment we mentioned how important it is to begin senior estate planning or traditional estate planning with the execution of powers of attorney for both property and healthcare matters. Quite often we take for granted the notion that these documents will be something that are easy to have signed.
However with diminished mental capacity, sometimes it is difficult and sometimes impossible to have such documents executed by a patient, resident, loved one or client due to the fact that they no longer possess the required cognitive capability to legally and ethically sign documents.
This is an impediment, even if we know that the documents would be good for them to have. But because cognitive capacity may not exist, the documents cannot be signed, legally or ethically, even if the individual is capable of going through the physical motion of signing their name. This is because even though they may be able to sign their name, they may not understand what it is that they are signing.
Sometimes circumstances are very clear-cut as to whether mental capacity exists, but sometimes the facts surrounding the behavior of a loved one are not so clear or not so well understood.
What can be done then?
In situations where it is not clear as to whether or not your loved one has mental capacity, the attorney involved may need to seek consultation from a medical professional or mental health expert.
If a formal assessment is desired, the attorney usually attempts to obtain the consent and cooperation of the client, if that is possible. Sometimes this can be upsetting or embarrassing to a client. Nevertheless, the determination of mental capacity is something that must be established before other matters that are encountered on the Elder Care Journey are confronted.
Assuming that either the consent of the client is obtained, or perhaps the client cannot consent, then who does the lawyer look to as a referral for consultation on matters of diminished mental capacity?
If the patient, resident, loved one or client is fortunate enough to have a physician regularly attending to them, then reaching out to that physician may be the first order of business. Sometimes however, primary care physicians may decline as they may feel that they are not trained sufficiently to administer psychiatric and psychological assessment tests.
If the attending physician will not undertake the assessment, you may look to other geriatric assessment professionals that can often take a multidisciplinary approach to determining mental capacity.
Keep in mind that the determination of mental capacity is sometimes complicated by the fact that mental capacity can vary from day to day and can often be task specific. This means that an individual can have the capacity for one type of task, for example, the execution of a power of attorney for healthcare, but may not have sufficient capacity for the execution of a power of attorney for property that has gifting and asset repositioning authorizations written into the document.
Why the difference?
The reason is: The former task (executing a power of attorney for healthcare) has a lower cognitive capacity standard or threshold that must be met in order to establish capacity. The latter task (executing a power of attorney for property) has a higher cognitive capacity standard that must be met, which standard is, for example, closer to the standard that must be met to knowingly execute a contract.
These varying degrees of capacity are why it’s important to select professionals that are trained to parse the levels of capacity needed based on the specific tasks that are being contemplated. As you can see this can become complicated.
The Takeaway: Obtain and sign powers of attorney for healthcare and powers of attorney for property, as well as any other estate planning documents that you need for either senior estate planning or traditional estate planning, as soon as possible. Waiting till one reaches the later stages in life creates the risk that in those later stages, you may not have the requisite mental capacity to execute the documents that you need.
The problem that arises: If you do not have the requisite mental capacity to legally and ethically execute documents, it may be necessary to engage in a protective action such as a expensive guardianship proceeding in the State of Illinois. Let’s assume the senior resides in the City of Chicago, at this time, in the Circuit Court of the County, the waiting period for a hearing on a guardianship petition can take as long as 4 to 6 weeks due to tremendous case backlog in Cook County. This creates unnecessary expense and time delay that can be avoided with the timely execution of estate planning documents such as powers of attorney for property and powers of attorney for healthcare.
In our office we recommend people execute powers of attorney when they are 18 years of age! Obviously the type of power of attorney that an 18-year-old may need will be quite different than that of a 88-year-old, but the point is you need to get these documents in place sooner rather than later.
Don’t fall into the trap of helplessness that diminished mental capacity can create, and possibly be permanently locked out of your constitutional right to self determination, regarding your own health needs, property matters, estate plan, and other related matters.