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TIPS OF THE WEEK – Estate Planning and Elder Law

By: Anthony Ferraro

Do you have powers of attorney in place?

I know it sounds simplistic, and we have all heard this before, but perhaps the most important document that you can have upon beginning the long term care journey is the power of attorney. This is the first matter we suggest to our clients in the Chicago and Park Ridge metropolitan areas who are on the long term care journey.

Why is the power of attorney so important?

Because a power of attorney is a legal document where one person called the “principal” legally authorizes another person called the “agent” to act on their behalf with regard to either financial or health related decisions.

Without these powers of attorney in place, no one has the legal authority to act on another’s behalf and therefore we may have to resort to a court guardianship proceeding where a person appointed by the court, usually a family member, called the “guardian” has the power to make personal decisions for another usually called the “ward”. Guardianship’s are expensive, require the testimony of physicians, the appointment of a Guardian “ad litem” to investigate and protect the ward’s interest, and many other formalities have to be observed, all in the interests of protecting the ward.

These court efforts are all well and good, but if you can avoid all of this by simply having created valid powers of attorney for property and finance and healthcare matters (this may not be possible in all cases), you can streamline matters during your long-term care journey, later on.

How many different types of powers of attorney are there?

In Illinois we have two types of powers of attorney one for health and one for property (and financial matters). Sometimes these documents are called statutory powers of attorney and at other times these documents are called durable powers of attorney. The difference lies in the type of form selected to draft the power of attorney. Most of the time we recommend you stick to the statutory form power of attorney because this is the one the doctors, other health providers, nursing homes, assisted living facilities banks and financial institutions most readily recognize.

Can I create my own powers of attorney?

Yes you can, however they will not contain the necessary language that Elder Law Attorneys put into such documents such as: the power to make gifts to family members and others in order to qualify for Medicaid eligibility, the power to remove and add assets to a trust, and the power to apply for public benefits and then appeal any decision on public benefits. Unfortunately your standard power of attorney forms do not have these provisions built into them. Worse yet, if these additional powers are not built into the power of attorney, then you cannot engage in these powers under the power of attorney. They must be expressly listed in the power of attorney.

What’s the take away?

Get powers of attorney in place immediately. You could wait until later when you I need them, however if you lose the cognitive capacity to legally and ethically execute documents like these, then you may never be able to have these types of documents and hence we are left pursuing an expensive and complicated guardianship process. Get your powers of attorney in place now.

How old should you be when you start executing powers of attorney?

18 years of age. Most people don’t realize that at 18 they cannot make either financial or medical decisions for their children. But that is in fact the law, because at 18 children have reached the age of majority and without legal authorization nobody can make decisions for them as they are now adults. Ask your adult children to have their powers of attorney done now, as well.

UPCOMING: Our next installment will deal with interacting with the medical profession when cognitive capacity may be questionable, when seeking to execute powers of attorney.

Anthony B. Ferraro can be reached at AFerraro@dimontelaw.com.

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