Do you get along with everyone in your family? Lots of people don’t. Old conflicts can rise up when aging parents start to decline in health and need help. When there is conflict in families, it can sometimes escalate to the point that the parties involved hire lawyers. After that the lawyers may have an interest in keeping the fight going and no one attempts to resolve the issues. Attorneys fees can take a huge bite out of what Mom or Dad left to their heirs. Is there a way to avoid these ugly and expensive scenarios?
If you don’t get along so well with everyone in your own family and you hope it never comes to a legal battle about your aging loved ones or their estate, consider these three ways to completely stay away from the courts.
First, make sure your aging parents’ legal documents are in order, up to date and clear.
Sometimes laws change between the time a parent first gets a will or trust done by a lawyer. 20 or 30 years can pass and they never look at the paperwork. Divorces, changes in the situation of the intended heirs and other things can create a need to update the will and trust. Urge your parents to either get these documents done if they haven’t yet or get the existing papers reviewed and updated by an attorney nearby while your aging loved ones are still competent enough to understand what they are doing.
Besides a will and trust aging parents need a Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) and Advance Healthcare Directive (also called a living will or power or attorney for health). Without these documents, legal problems can arise for anyone caring for an aging parent. When an elder develops dementia, he is going to need help with a lot of things, particularly handling finances. The DPOA will allow the appointed agent the legal authority to act on behalf of the impaired elder and protect him from dangerous financial decisions.
Second, plan ahead for the possible need for care and how aging parents would pay for care when the time comes.
One of the biggest problems families have is how to pay for care for parents who lose their independence. I have seen bitter battles between siblings, accusations of abuse, destruction of relationships and struggles that last for years when families fail to discuss and plan for care of their loved ones. It’s expensive and there is usually no outside source to pay for the care that parents may need for the long run. People are living longer than ever. Sometimes, they outlive their savings and have no funds to cover the cost of help in the home. They may consider assisted living, but can’t pay the monthly fees. The burden then falls on family to provide the care. The person who provides it is often the daughter or daughter in law. She may not get any help at all from other siblings. There is a financial value to providing care, even when it comes from family, but many families fail to recognize this and don’t anything to compensate or help the primary caregiver.
The unfair burden on one sibling in providing care is a frequent source of friction, resentment and anger in families. After a parent dies, the caregiver sibling may feel justified in bringing a legal action to claim a larger share of any inheritance, as payment for providing the care. This can be avoided by discussion, planning, sharing the load, and sometimes by creating written agreements about caregiving among family members.
Third, use mediation when a fight is brewing, before it boils over into a lawsuit.
Mediation is an organized process, conducted by a trained and experienced mediator to help willing parties resolve disputes through their own decision making process. No one tells the parties what they have to do. No one judges them. Rather, they come together, either in person or by Skype, and with the assistance of the mediator, who is a neutral outsider, they get direction and suggestions about possible alternative ways to work out their issues. The parties come to their own resolution by making their own choices. Everyone gets a chance to be heard. The mediator keeps order and facilitates the discussion, which fighting siblings or others usually can’t do on their own. Many conflicts are successfully resolved through mediation.
Most family disputes can be avoided or worked out with good planning, open communication and the smart use of mediation. It takes some effort to have the needed communication with aging parents and with siblings to get these things done, but it is well worth the effort. Avoid the pain that legal cases can create in families and take a step in the right direction to prevent them by initiating the needed conversations.
Until next time,
Carolyn Rosenblatt, RN, Attorney, Mediator
Dr. Mikol Davis, Psychologist