A few days ago there was a thread of discussion on an online group I am in for Caregivers of spouses with Lewy Body Dementia.   There were all sorts of issues that surfaced as people talked about stepchildren who seemed unwilling to show real concern for their parent who has dementia and his/her caregiving spouse.   In some of the cases there was very active interest by those same stepchildren in the disposition of the estate when that time would come. 

That conversation brought up lots of legal issues that need to be dealt with whether or not there are any problems in the family.  This is one of the times I am especially grateful that we have a healthy family with a deep and genuine love combined with intellegence and common sense.  It is hard to hear about some of the ugliness that can emerge when money issues trigger a mindless greed in people. 

One of the dynamics of dealing with dementia is that, since the executive function of the brain ceases to work properly, the ability to make well thought out decisions ceases.  Gathering and processing information as is necessary for making good health decisions or financial decisions, is no longer possible, at least consistently. 

With dementia of any sort, the progression of the disease makes it important to act sooner rather than later in planning for future contingencies.  With the Lewy Body dementias, the roller coaster pattern of times of great lucidity mixed with times of the inability to track thoughts, makes it especially important to make long term decisions and set in motion processes that will insure that legal matters will be in order no matter what comes.  The goal is first of all to keep all the family resources available for whatever care is needed for the one who cannot care for him/herself.  Secondly, it is to provide the usual care in estate planning so that the wishes the deceased are reflected in the disposition of their possessions.

While many of the legal issues are related to the time of death, some are matters of concern for the living.  All of us, no matter our age, need a Living Will.  We need people designated to make decisions when we are not able to do so for whatever reasons.  For a Caregiver spouse, the question is, who shall that be.  If legal documents designate a spouse who has dementia as the one who has Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care Decisions, that spouse will be put in the position of carrying a decision-making weight beyond their ability.   If that spouse is appointed attorney-in-fact for all the rest of the decisions that need to be made through a Durable Power of Attorney, the same will be so.  There will be a vulnerability to manipulation by others who may not be a trusted part of the immediate family when major decisions need to be made.  All someone would need to do is obtain a signature in front of witnesses, and the wishes of the Caregiver and spouse could be frustrated.

The way to proceed in the area of all these legal matters is to locate a reputable Attorney who specializes in Elder Law, preferably a member of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorney’s, Inc.  (NAELA).  Powers of Attorney should name someone completely trustworthy who is committed to the wishes and the well-being of the Caregiver.  The transition from spouse to Son or Daughter or other trusted family member can be difficult for the one suffering from dementia.  It is essential to make any needed changes with the full knowledge and participation of all those impacted by those changes.  If no one in the family can be found to serve as the agent for the Powers of Attorney, a Guardian may be chosen.  Often the court has a list of people who can serve in that role. 

Then there is the issue of how a Will should be structured when there is a spouse with a form of dementia.  The challenge comes if the Caregiver dies before the spouse with dementia.  If the all the assets transfer to the spouse with dementia, as was so with the Powers of Attorney, that spouse will have decisions to make that he/she is no longer able to make, and he/she will have a vulnerability to manipulation.  If all the assets are in the name of the spouse with dementia, they are all subject to being drawn down if nursing home care is needed. 

There are a number of options that the Elder Law Attorney can lay out for the Caregiver and Spouse.  If there are trusted children, it is a fairly simple matter to assure that all the resources will be used for the spouse with dementia should the Caregiving spouse die first.  All the assets are put in the name of the Caregiver with the children as beneficiaries of the estate.  Again, an Elder Law Attorney needs to be consulted rather than taking advice written in a blog. 

Since beneficiary designations on insurance policies, IRA’s, pension plans (and any other instrument with a beneficiary designation) go directly to the beneficiaries listed and take precedence over anything written into a will, all beneficiary designations need to reflect the current wishes of the Caregiver and spouse. 

When there is a spouse with dementia the legal issues  are complex, but ignoring them could result in some very unpleasant consequences, especially if the Caregiving spouse predeceases the spouse with dementia.  The sooner decisions are made, the better.  

Again, the key to making good decisions and formulating plans that are legal, clear, and reflect the wishes of the Caregiver and spouse, is to find a reputable Attorney versed in Elder Law in your state. 

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