Has the Ship Sailed?

In my experience as an estate planning attorney, I have come across two types of clients: proactive and reactive. Proactive clients meet with a Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Law before incapacity or death strikes. Reactive clients, on the other hand, meet with a Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust and Probate law because inevitable incapacity or death are on the line. It cannot be stressed enough: when it comes to estate planning, proactive is the best policy. This means consulting with an attorney now, not later.

One of the most common situations I encounter in my law office are reactive clients whose loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia. Early signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s are quickly written off as “just getting old” or go entirely unnoticed because these diseases can progress so slowly. If your loved one has received a diagnosis of early-onset dementia or Alzheimer’s, it may not be too late to implement an estate plan, but they must start immediately, before their condition progresses to the point of incapacity. Unfortunately, in many cases, by the time the family seeks medical advice for their elderly relative who has become forgetful, confused, lost, combative, reluctant, or scared, they receive a medical diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s that has progressed to incapacity. Once a person receives this diagnosis, they can no longer implement an estate plan for themselves.

At first, this diagnosis may not present a major problem in caring for their loved one. But when the time comes to place their loved one into a memory care facility or make tough medical decisions, they will need a durable power of attorney and healthcare directive. This seems simple, until they realize there’s a huge problem: you cannot implement an estate plan once incapacity has settled in, and oftentimes diagnoses of Alzheimer’s and dementia constitute incapacity. If your loved one did not implement an estate plan before their incapacity, your only option is conservatorship, the process by which a judge decides who will be responsible for the financial and healthcare decisions of your loved one. Conservatorship is significantly more costly, stressful, and time-consuming than estate planning.

Proactive clients have the advantage of completing their estate planning in a calm state of mind, which allows them to more easily make logical decisions. Another benefit to being proactive about your estate planning is that you don’t risk making important family decisions without your spouse, who may have already passed on if you wait too long to start the process. The most important benefit is that the client gets to decide who will be making these important financial and healthcare decisions for them, rather than leaving these important decisions in the hands of some judge they don’t even know. Proactive clients understand that even though life seems fine right now, death is inevitable and age-related incapacity is very possible. Equipped with this understanding, they implement an estate plan for themselves immediately.

Reactive clients wait until the very last minute to implement an estate plan: doctors have confirmed they have only a couple of weeks left to live, their grandparent is about to be placed in a memory care facility, their spouse died or suffered a major injury, etc. Each of these situations presents a unique stumbling block in the estate planning process. These reactive clients feel rushed to make crucial decisions, and the added stress of an impending tragedy can cloud their ability to make sound decisions. Some of these clients feel alone during the estate planning process because they can no longer consult with their spouse. In many cases, these clients are going to end up in court dealing with probate or conservatorship because they waited too long to meet with a Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Law.

My best advice? Be a proactive client. Take control of your future today by implementing an appropriate estate plan that will protect you and your loved ones both during and after your life, saving them money, time and stress in the long-run. If your spouse is reluctant to think about these things, I invite you to call my office for a free or reduced-charge estate planning strategy session. Meeting with a Certified Specialist in Estate Planning, Trust and Probate Law will help you understand the potential consequences of all your estate planning options, allowing you to make the decisions that are best for you and your family. Matthew Hart is a California Licensed Attorney who is an Estate Planning, Trust & Probate Law Specialist certified by the State Bar of California. His office is in Antioch and he can be reached at 925-754-2000 or www.MatthewHartLaw.com.