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Six Legal Documents All Seniors Should Have

How an Elder Law Attorney Can Help

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The legal needs of the elderly are many and diverse. As we age, some of the things that used to be so easy for us, are now becoming very difficult. Maybe we are getting a bit forgetful, or we’re having trouble getting around; perhaps some persons we regularly depended on, are no longer available to us, and we are beginning to stay at home more. Recognizing the legal needs of the elderly, many attorneys have developed practices specifically designed to serve the elderly client. They are known as elder law attorneys.

Rather than being defined by the technical legal distinctions, elder law is defined by the client to be served.  In other words, the lawyer who practices elder law may handle a range of issues but has a specific type of clients – seniors. 

Under this approach, the elder law attorney handles the issues that are facing the elderly client: income stability, health care, Social security, Medicare, and Medicaid, to name a few. It is critical to be informed about decisions that can be made simply and inexpensively while the elder still knows his family and himself.

Once incapacity has arrived, decision making for the elder will be very limited. Working to insure the elder’s right to quality and compassionate care is the overriding goal of the elder law attorney.

Six Important Legal Documents

Here are several important documents for senior citizens that can make that preparation a relatively simple process:

Durable Power of Attorney

A Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) gives a person the legal right to conduct matters on behalf of another person. The person appointed as the DPOA has the power to conduct all matters for the person in most every area of life including:

  • Real estate

  • Banking

  • Financial investments

  • Government benefits

  • Estate trust and beneficiary transactions

  • Personal and family maintenance issues

The powers granted in the DPOA become effective immediately, once the document is signed. The rights granted in the DPOA continue until the person who issued it dies. When you or your loved one complete a DPOA, make sure that it meets the legal requirements of the state in which you, and your loved one, live.

Medical Power of Attorney/Health Care Proxy

Appointing a health care power of attorney/health care proxy is one of the most important steps that individuals can take to ensure their wishes are honored if they cannot speak for themselves. These documents are available online, and/or through one’s physician or local hospital.

It is important that the person appointed as the health care power of attorney or proxy clearly understands the senior’s wishes. Therefore, discussions that openly and honestly discuss end of life are necessary. These conversations should be held regularly, in case the senior’s wishes change.

Being appointed a health care proxy is a weighty responsibility. The person appointed as proxy needs to be willing to vigorously defend the senior’s wishes in the face of opposition. The proxy also has the power to make healthcare decisions on behalf of the individual should they be unable to speak for themselves. That can potentially place the proxy in the middle of very difficult circumstances.

For example, the proxy may know that the senior vehemently opposes being resuscitated. Should death occur, family members may fight that wish, wanting every medical intervention possible to say the person’s life. It is the proxy’s responsibility to vigorously defend the individual’s wishes in the face of that opposition.

The proxy takes effect only when the family, hospital or physician determines that the individual cannot make decisions for him or herself or cannot communicate his or her wishes. As with all other documents, check with the state department of elder affairs to ensure the proxy meets the state’s legal requirements.

Living Will

A living will is a type of advance directive. It is a written document that states the individual’s wishes for the end of life. There is some controversy around these documents and not all hospitals recognize them as legal and binding. However, they do inform physicians and other providers about the individual’s wishes that are being carried out by the health care proxy. You can find a living will document at the U.S. Living Will Registry.

Do Not Resuscitate (DNR)

These two documents are essential to articulate the senior’s wishes when it comes to intubation or resuscitation used to save lives.

Resuscitation can include CPR, chest compressions and the use of a defibrillator. That can save a life but it is also a very physical medical process that can cause damage to a frail senior’s body. If you or your loved one want advice on whether or not to sign a Do Not Resuscitate order (DNR), have an honest discussion with your physician and ask him or her to describe a CPR process. When a doctor signs a DNR it becomes a legally binding document.

A Do Not Intubate (DNI) order states that the person does not want a breathing tube inserted to keep him or her alive. If you want to discuss the pros and cons of this, ask to speak to a respiratory therapist who can describe the intubation process in detail.

Once completed, file the document with the physician and others as mentioned at the beginning. However, with DNR/DNI is it important to also post it in a visible place in the house where emergency response personnel can clearly see it.

Will and/or Trust

These are legal documents for the disposition of property and possessions. They should be drawn up with an attorney.

Advance Directives

Advance directives is one of the most important documents that a senior can prepare. It is actually a collection of documents that include detailed written instructions regarding the individual’s preferences for medical care and comfort at the end of life. It will speak for the individual should he or she become incapacitated.

In some states, an advance directive is one specific document detailing medical care and comfort. It helps an individual to clearly articulate the extent of life saving care he or she wants including:

  • Use of life support machines including dialysis and breathing machines

  • Resuscitation if breathing or the heart stops

  • Feeding through a tube

  • Organ or tissue donation

In other states, an advance directive includes that information as well as a Living Will, Health Care Power of Attorney/Health Care Proxy, and a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) or Do Not Intubate (DNI) order.

The document also provides room for the individual to state the types of comfort they would like to have while dying, including things like music, family members and soft blankets. An advance directive can be written without a lawyer. Advanced directives are easy to obtain.

Completing these documents requires careful thought. They are essential to retain control over one’s life during illness and death. Of course that is an eventuality that is difficult to consider. However, preparing these documents gives a trusted friend or family member the information he or she needs to fight for your wishes when you can no longer make them clear to physicians or emergency personnel.

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Disclaimer: Elder Options of Texas is not rendering any legal or professional advice.  If legal advice is necessary the reader should consult a competent attorney.

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