Who Will Make Your Financial Decisions if You are Unable to Make Them Yourself?

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What good is having access to a safe deposit box if you don’t have the key and you’re not ont he signature card?

What if someone asked you to drive his car in an emergency but he didn’t give you the car keys?

What if a relative wanted you to handle financial matters for her, but the authorization she signed for you didn’t work?

In each case, you’re holding a firecracker but you’re missing the fuse. You have only half of what you need to do the job. Without the activation half — the “Launch Code” — you’re stuck where you are, and so is the person you’re supposed to be helping.

So, you can have very important-looking papers which authorize you to act if someone else is disabled. They have familiar titles, like “Financial Power of Attorney” or “Living Will.” They read right: you are to collect the income, pay the bills and do all the financial chores for that person.

But, too many documents say that you can’t do any of these activities until you get past a next-to-impossible condition. Until you fulfill the condition, you’re disabled, too.

You think King Arthur’s buddies had a hard time trying to pull Excalibur from the rock? Wait ‘til you try convincing a customer service rep that you really, really need to get to the disabled person’s accounts.

A neighbor found this out the hard way when trying to help her father. She wants to share the exasperating experience so you can avoid it.

Everything looked okay at first. She and her father (and I’ve changed details to hide identities) went to a lawyer in the state where the father lived. The lawyer advertised himself as an expert in “Geriatric Law” and “Elder Law.”

He did the documents but they didn’t fit the situation. He punched a button or downloaded some “boilerplate” document — who knows? — and out came a Living Trust and Financial Power of Attorney, presumably so the daughter could handle things when father was unable to care for himself. They knew that was coming because he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

However, the lawyer didn’t explore the specific requirements that the father and daughter would need to meet in order to activate the documents.

So when the daughter needed to access to the father’s assets, she discovered that she couldn’t. Her father had the right papers, but she couldn’t activate them.

Her problem: she had to find two physicians who would sign a document stating that her father wasn’t “Competent to Act.”

Now that’s not an easy phrase for anyone to sign off on. Not competent mentally? Not competent physically? Both? Is the incompetent person temporarily or permanently impaired?

Or in the dementia-Alzheimer’s realm, is the person not competent now but might be competent later today? Or tomorrow? And for how long?

No doctor wants to sign an unequivocal, absolute “Not Competent” statement. It’s almost as unfair as asking the doctor to sign a statement that a person is in love.  For how long, and how in love?

And no doctor wants to be sued if what’s signed turns out to be incorrect because the situation changes.

Back to our story. Before daughter could use the father’s trust or the power of attorney, she had to find two doctors who were willing to sign that impossible statement.

But even if she succeeded, then she’d have to convince all sorts of customer service representatives that the doctors’ signatures are real.

And if the customer service people are skeptical, she’ll have to go to court to get an Order. The entire process could turn out to be a totally wretched waste of time and money when it could be accomplished easily if it is done correctly right at the start.

The daughter wants people to avoid what she went through.  But how? Look over the documents with someone who really knows how the real world operates. There are more choices than “Find Two Doctors and Get ‘em to Sign.” For while sometimes the “Not Competent” test works, or can be tailored to work, other triggers may work far better and far easier.

Just don’t assume that the “boilerplate” you bought will work. You might be disabling yourself and the help you could give.