By Jan Warner and Jan Collins
Everyone is getting older -- even the authors of this FOX Forum piece! But how many of us have planned for the rest of our lives? Not too many, we reckon. And that's worrisome.
For more than 20 years, we have been trying to help folks who have asked us for advice about how to fix the problems that came up because they, or their loved ones, thought the future would take care of itself. By now we've seen it all:
Some folks failed to set up appropriate wills or assign the necessary powers of attorney -- and then experienced a debilitating stroke or accident or became incapacitated because of dementia and were no longer able to direct their affairs.
Others got divorced in late middle age (before they were eligible for Medicare) and didn't negotiate the kind of settlement that would enable them to afford to continue health insurance.
Or they remarried without any planning, thereby disrupting plans they had for their children by prior marriages.
Still others thought they could give away their assets or sell their house for less than fair-market value and then become eligible for Medicaid immediately if they had to enter a nursing home -- even though the system doesn't work this way.
It seems clear that most of us avoid thinking about these and other aspects of aging because... well, why? Because we'd rather be 35 again? If we've learned anything over the past two decades, it's that careful planning can head off many of these problems at the pass and can help us enjoy secure futures.
So, here are a few important points to consider:
- Planning for Health Contingencies Is Crucial. None of us knows whether we will remain healthy into our older years. Anyone can develop a physical or mental condition(s) that require long-term care. And if you are unprepared, you can lose everything and become dependent on the social welfare system. If you have a spouse, he or she may well become dependent on adult children, who could already be swimming in debt.
- Have the Right Documents Ready to Go. These documents -- including, at a minimum, a will, a health care power of attorney, and a financial power of attorney -- need to be tailored to your specifications and based on your needs. Don't rely on a "one-size-fits-all" document found on the Internet. The correct documents will allow people you trust to make financial and health care decisions should you become incapacitated and unable to make these decisions. They will also ensure that at your death your remaining assets flow to those whom you think should receive them.
- Professional Help Matters. Gathering a team of professionals to help you prepare a plan is recommended, because the legal, economic, and health issues that concern older people are all interrelated. Developing this team (which would include a lawyer knowledgeable about elder issues, possibly a certified public accountant and financial advisor, a physician, and perhaps even a geriatric care manager) needn't break the bank, but having experts at the ready can save you and your family both money and heartache in the future.
Finally, it's not too scary to think about these things. It's much scarier -- and much more expensive -- not to.
Jan Warner is a matrimonial and elder law attorney with 40 years of experience. Jan Collins is a journalist, writer and editor. Their columns, FlyingSolo and NextSteps, are syndicated by United Media. Their new book is Next Steps: A Practical Guide to Planning for the Best Half of Your Life (Quill Driver Books, $14.95).