A few weeks after my phone call with the lawyer, Cheryl Henderson, I attended her estate-planning workshop with about a dozen other people, all of us eager to find out how best to take care of our loved ones. While there was some valuable information shared and I learned a few new things, it mostly validated the work that my brother and I had already done on Miss Cathy’s behalf. Back when Miss Cathy was fist diagnosed with dementia in January of 2010 it was Tony’s idea that we draw up a POA (Power of Attorney) and a Medical Advance Directive, turns out these were the two documents at the workshop that were stressed as the “foundation of any good estate planning” because without them one has very little power or control in matters concerning their loved one in times of need. Knowing that we’d done something right (and were on the right track without even knowing it) made me feel pretty good about the choices we were making for our mother.
I mean lets face it, we were doing our best and what we were doing was out of love for our parent but “love” isn’t going to going to convince a doctor to follow your orders in a medical emergency, you gotta have the right paperwork-and you’re going to need it before you have to decide whether to pull a plug or switch somebody off.
Anyway, I was impressed enough with the seminar (and the lawyer) to suggest to my brother that we meet with her. After comparing everyone’s schedules and going back and forth a few times I was able to make an appointment for early June (remember I started this process in late April). That gave me plenty of time to fine-tune my list of questions for the meeting (after gaining a better idea of what to expect from the seminar and a clearer understanding of the process we were about to undertake).
I was most intrigued by the “Veteran’s Aid and Attendance Benefit” so my first order of business after the seminar was to call the Veteran’s Administration. I was on hold for about fifteen minutes (whattayougonnado) but ultimately it was worth it because the representative was very helpful when he finally came on the line. I found out that our situation isn’t as straight forward as some others because my step-father served during World War ll and record keeping was spotty back then so Eddie, the representative didn’t immediately find him in the system but he assured me that just because my Pop wasn’t showing up on his computer that he could be found somewhere, somehow.
I think that anyone that’s going to call the VA to inquire about a deceased Veteran should have the Vet’s social security number and (more importantly) their discharge papers when you call (the more information you have when you call a government agency the better!) and always, always document your call by asking for the representative’s name, a case number and be sure to note the day/time of your call (that’s a little “Ty tip”;).
Having this information at the ready is helpful as you follow up with questions at another time because chances are that whomever you speak to is going to ask who you spoke to previously.
Eddie was able to give me some basic information as to how my mother could possibly qualify for the little known monthly stipend paid to widows of war vets. As expected, the paperwork is extensive and to qualify you have to be practically destitute but “nothing ventured (except time) by applying and there could be as much as a thousand dollars a month for Miss Cathy to gain based on need. The representative promised to mail the necessary forms and information to me (info is also available on the Veteran’s Administration website at www.va.org).
If you find the website as complicated as I did, it may be well worth the wait to call the VA at: 800-827-1000 (just make sure you have your knitting or a crack pipe to suck on while you’re on hold waiting to speak to someone-another “Ty tip”;)
Later that week Tony and I had a phone meeting to go over what I’d learned and to talk about what we (each) wanted to accomplish at the meeting with the lawyer. My brother and I work very well together and it definitely helps to talk things over before speaking on our mother’s behalf so that we’re on the same page. Even though we’re family and we have the same goals our approach may sometimes be different as to how to get there so I always think it’s best to compare notes ahead of time so that we show a united front. The system; doctors, hospitals, lawyers and the like can sometimes be less than welcoming to loves ones of a person in need so the last thing they want to encounter is bickering siblings with divergent agendas.
We decided to bring as much documentation that we thought might be necessary (Miss Cathy’s social security card, deed, will, bank account, as well as some of our deceased step-father’s information). I think there’s nothing worse than being asked for something in a meeting that you “thought you might need” but don’t have with you so why not bring it along-just in case, after all, it’s just paper.
The laywer’s office was quiet and serene on the day we had our meeting, it was not crowded and buzzing with activity the way it was on the day I came for the estate-planning seminar. The receptionist led us into the conference room where I sat weeks earlier but this time there we only three of us in the room.
After introductions we settled into our seats and began. Cheryl told us about herself and her practice (more for my brother’s benefit because I’d already heard her spiel). When she asked why we were there we took that as our cue to dive right in. Tony told her what we wanted to do and I read to her our list of questions. We finished by asking her if she could help us.
She listened to what we had to say and took notes about our questions, then Cheryl told us that there were a few ways to accomplish what we wanted then she gave us the pros and cons of each scenario. At one point she said, “If I had “this or that” document then I would be able to tell you “such and such”, and wouldn’t you know it-we had most of what she was asking for so we were able to get specific information from her about our situation and quickly more away from generalities.
We discussed Irrevocable Trusts, Revocable Trusts, Life Estate (Ladybird) Deeds, Personal Care Agreement, Medicaid and the VA Aid and Attendance benefit and tax implications among other things.
One of the things we realized after talking with the her is that a will is not a great option for us; probate can be expensive and the estate (what little there is) could be tied up in the courts for up to a year (something to think about when you’re planning for those left behind after your loved one has passed away). It sounds as though one of the Trusts is better suited for our needs to accomplish what Miss Cathy wants to happened with her things and the Personal Care Agreement will help take care of planning for her inevitable stay in a nursing home.
As for Medicaid, it’s a great government program that pays for long term nursing home care, but the individual is responsible for a portion (if not all of the expenses associated with the nursing home) if the individual goes into a nursing home before the five-year period after they have applied. The “five year look-back” determines the individual’s financial situation and there ability to pay for their own care, so the clock starts ticking only “after” you apply so, the sooner the better. If your loved one goes into a nursing home five years after you apply then the gov’t pays for everything. If they have to go in before, then they (or you) will be responsible for the nursing home costs until the five-year time “window” is closed.
It’s important to know that Medicaid will never take someone’s house while they are alive, but monies owed for care will be recuperated after the sale of the home upon the person’s death unless other arrangements have been made to dispose of the property and/or have the home exempt as an asset that Medicaid can put a lien on.
As you can imagine, the meeting lasted well over an hour and by the time we left my head was swimming with all the info that was floating around in it. Thank God Tony was there because I needed him to help me figure out what the hell was said in the meeting and what works best for us.
After much discussion we’ve decided to move forward with the Personal Care agreement (which includes help applying for the Veteran’s Aid and Attendance Benefit) as well as an Irrevocable Trust.
So, now we’re gearing up up to meet with the lawyer one more time in early August to get the ball rolling and so that Cheryl can meet Miss Cathy. In the interim I’ve been gathering the following documents and paperwork for our next meeting; Marriage and divorce decrees and certificates, Death certificates, Birth certificates, Deeds, Bank accounts, Military discharge papers, Monthly household expenses, Names of doctors and hospital visits, Social security award letter, Physician’s statement and Proof of income-Oye Vey! That’s a lot of paper!
I know that we’re among the lucky ones because Miss Cathy is still able to be part of the planning and the process. She can express to us what she wants to happen to her (and her things) after she’s gone so we can all work together to make that happen. A lot of people don’t have the luxury of their parent’s cooperation and input; one in particular comes to mind. I have a friend who’s parent is much farther along in the disease than my mother so he doesn’t have his parent’s input or cooperation, he’s acting alone to plan for long term care and doing the best he can to decide what happens “after”. Unfortunately (and this is an oft told tale) he and his loved one are at odds because his parent’s dementia makes him not able to fully understand what is happening so he’s combative and his behavior is often detrimental to the process (of their adult child making preparations for the parent’s long term care and passing).
I think it’s important to be able to honor your loved one’s wishes and provide for their needs as best as possible and at the same time take in consideration those left behind and the burden they may have to bear. Death and dying and long-term care can be uncomfortable conversations to have but they’re important and you’ve got to have them, especially if your loved one is capable talking about those things.
Alzheimer’s is a baffling and cunning disease so if your parent or loved one is in the early stages, start the conversation now-if there disease has progressed past the point of their involvement then do your best to honor them as you see fit-after all, you’re among (or you are) the closest person to them and I always feel that if you’re acting from a place of love then whatever action you take can't be wrong.
So, I know we’re lucky and I know that even with all the paper I have to chase it’s worth it so that Miss Cathy’s wishes are honored and she’s taken care of properly. The more I can do now the better chance that no one (i.e.-me) is buried under a mountain of red-tape and paperwork down the road.