A friend of a friend went through the aftermath of losing a parent not too long ago and after all the dust cleared, she sent around an email that covered a lot of bases. In this three part series I will share her advise along with what she learned. [At her request, I am preserving her anonymity.]
Talk frankly about end of life wishes and put it in writing. My friend’s friend was lucky her parents were quite open about their wishes – and talked about them early on, before they had become incapacitated. Here are some of the topics they discussed:
What do they want, when the time comes? Comfort? To be alone? With family? At home? Pastoral care?
What do they definitely not want? Hospital? Drugs?
Religious/spiritual beliefs: What would be comforting to them? How would they like others to say goodbye? Funeral? Memorial service? Private? Favorite hymns? Verses?
How would they like to say goodbye? Casket? Cremation?
Where would they like to be? Cemetery? Family plot? Scattered?
What do they want done with their belongings?
Are they specific things they’d like specific people to have? If so, get it in writing.
Prepare to have to make decisions for your parent and complete the required legal documentation beforehand. Without it, you can’t help a parent in a crisis.
Power of Attorney: Without it, you won’t be able to pay bills from your parents’ accounts, sign legal documents, sell assets in their name, sign medical documents, file their taxes, access a safe deposit box, etc. You need an attorney to prepare this paperwork. Keep copies on hand. There’s a separate Medical Power of Attorney form that gives you the right to make medical decisions on their behalf. An advanced care directive and/or HIPAA authorization aren’t enough to do that.
Advanced Care Directive: Send a copy of the living will to every clinic/physician they see. In an emergency, doctors don’t necessarily look at it but it is extremely helpful to reference when talking with the doctors. It’s also helpful for clearing your own head when you have to make decisions in an emergency.
HIPAA Authorization: Allows parents’ physicians and health insurance to talk with you about their health, health care benefits, treatment options, etc. Without it, you can’t legally have access to the information you need to help parents in a crisis or if they become incapacitated; without it, neither the insurance company nor the doctor can give it to you. You don’t need an attorney for this, but you do need the parent to sign the appropriate paperwork and send to the clinic or insurance company to be officially registered. Keep several copies on hand for yourself. It’s usually valid for about a year, then has to be renewed.
Bank Access: Power of Attorney may allow you to add yourself to a parent’s checking/savings account if you need to manage their funds. Check whether the bank also requires that your parent go with you and complete additional paperwork. Without Power of Attorney, the bank can’t talk with you about a parent’s account, give you access, allow you to stop auto-bill pay, pay bills to an account, etc. Get access at some point so you can pay their bills (e.g., property tax) if they can’t.
Safe Deposit Box Access: The Patriot Act passed after Sept. 11, 2001, now requires more than Power of Attorney to have access to a parent’s safe deposit box, regardless of the circumstances. The parent or box holder needs to go with you in person to complete this authorization. Without it, you can’t have access to their safe deposit box, even in the event of death. Instead, access to the box goes through Probate Court, which can take months.
Social Security Alternate Payee: If a parent is completely incapacitated, you can apply for Social Security Alternate Payee status: Social Security sends you the monthly benefit; you are responsible for managing it, paying their bills and providing required accounting to Social Security. Power of Attorney designation doesn’t apply to Social Security, so basic things like changing an address become extremely challenging.
Finally, take care of yourself and your own need to grieve, even while they’re still with you. The parent you always knew is now someone a bit different.
A therapist whose father was in the transitional care in the next room next to my friend’s dad shared this advice: “Before people die, they need to hear four things from their children: I love you; I forgive you; I’m sorry; I’ll miss you.”
It’s a difficult thing to sit down and think about but the death of a parent is something that many of us will have to face at some point. Every family is different, especially in these Modern Family Times, so this post isn’t meant to be an all encompassing checklist. Rather, it is meant to get your thought process started on the path now so that when the time comes, you are more prepared in you time of need. Read Parts I and III here.