Dear Rajiv: My question is about the Power of Attorney. My estate planning attorney says I need one, yet I’ve heard you say on your radio show that the Power of Attorney causes problems. Can you elaborate? Signed, Confused
Dear Confused: Thank you for asking the question. The problem with the typical Power of Attorney (and most legal documents in your retirement plan) is that they are focused on what happens when you die. Your Power of Attorney identifies who will manage your finances and health care from the moment you can’t manage them yourself — until you die.
Compare what these documents are designed to do with the goals most of us have for retirement. If you’re like most people, you want to avoid three things:
• Being forced to move into institutional care when your health fails.
• Lose your assets to uncovered long-term care costs
• Become a burden on your family.
How will legal documents that are almost exclusively focused on your death help you accomplish those goals? They won’t.
Let’s look at the Power of Attorney. You create this legal document to give someone you trust the authority to act on your behalf. What you may not realize is that the person you choose may have a very different take on life than you do. For example, you may want to access care in your own home when your health fails, but your Power of Attorney may think a nursing home is best for you. If that happens, you’re sunk. Even if your stated goal is to avoid the nursing home, unless you provide detailed guidance in your Power of Attorney document that tells your agent how to keep you out of the nursing home, there’s a good chance that you won’t achieve your goal.
This is just one of the many land mines hidden in your traditional Power of Attorney. Unless you clearly specify what you want your agent to do with the authority that the document gives them, chances are good that your failing health will set in motion a cascade of problems that your agents will end up solving in the way they think is best, not you. Adding detailed instructions to your Powers of Attorney (I call them Manuals of Instruction) is the best way to make sure that your goals for life in retirement aren’t blown to bits after a health crisis.
Dear Rajiv: My wife and I are in our late 70s. We’ve been married for almost 50 years, and we have four grown children who are all doing well. I’m writing today because my wife and I disagree on how much of our financial information we should share with our adult children. She thinks we should disclose everything to them now, and I think we should wait. What are your thoughts? Signed, Wondering
Dear Wondering: I’m glad you wrote. You and your wife aren’t the only ones asking this question. Many couples I work with disagree about how much to disclose about their financial situation and when to disclose it. I understand your reluctance. I am in complete agreement that some things need to be kept private, particularly if you have substantial assets and you have children with money troubles. There’s always the possibility that if an adult child learns that a large inheritance is on the way, the news may be a disincentive for them to work hard and try and make it on their own.
There’s another thing to consider, however. As you and your wife grow older and your health declines, there may come a time when one or more of your children will have to step in to manage your affairs. When that happens, there will be no hiding how much money you have — and that presents a risk. Many family fights begin in situations like these, when none of the kids had any idea how much money their parents had. When they find out, each child has a different idea about how the money should be used to take care of the parents. This leads to more disagreements and feuds than you can imagine. Some families never recover.
So, my advice is to think long and hard about why you would not want to give your children at least a general idea of the nature and extent of your estate. If you truly feel that this knowledge would make them less likely to work hard and more likely to sit around waiting for a payout, then don’t share it with them. For most families however, when parents give their adult children a rough idea about the nature of their estate and what they might expect in the way of an inheritance, things go much better for everyone.
Rajiv Nagaich is an elder law attorney, author, adjunct law school professor, and retirement planning visionary who has achieved national recognition for his cutting-edge work with retirees and his contributions to the practice of elder law. He is the founder of two firms based in Federal Way: Life Point Law, an elder law and estate planning firm, and AgingOptions, a firm that provides retirement-related education to consumers and professionals. For more information, visit AgingOptions.com, LifePointLaw.com or call 877-762-4464 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.