Where To Find Trustworthy Help
The Best Retirement Advice & Support is the second of a three-part series on senior life planning:
- Best Retirement Location
- Best Retirement Advice & Support (this blog)
- and Best Retirement Community (third segment)
Finding the Best Retirement Advice & Support
In the previous blog we chose a long term residence location and explained the need for trusted advisors on whom we can rely for a long time. We also promised help in identifying those people and services. This blog covers the second major step in senior life planning, choosing and authorizing those advisors.
Finding the best retirement advice and support requires these four steps:
- Sources for Help – consult people and organizations in your area.
- Financial Plan – know what you can afford.
- Estate Attorney – prepare and execute key documents.
- Medical Care – choose physicians and hospitals.
1. Best Retirement Advice Sources for Help
Senior life planning requires the best retirement advice. We need competent, responsible people and services in diverse professional areas. Few of us are qualified to judge credentials in any of these specialties, much less all of them. Nonetheless, all of them is what an adequate plan requires.
How can we handle this? The following sections give specific tips for finding reliable advice in financial planning, estate planning and medical care. Each section offers specialized suggestions. In addition, here is general advice that applies to all these areas:
- Inside Knowledge. Do you have a relative or good friend who’s a lawyer, healthcare or social worker, or financial expert? They may have inside info which qualifies as your best retirement advice.
- Word of Mouth. Personal recommendations, from thoughtful people whom you trust, are golden. Collect a number of recommendations, because each person you speak with may give you ideas of questions to ask the next person. You want both names of organizations and names of individuals. Also, pay special attention to examples where a professional acted in the best interest of a relatively helpless person, without benefit to themselves.
- Government Agencies. Each state and many municipalities have departments that provide “elder” or “senior citizen” services. It’s worth browsing the government websites in your chosen living area to see what they do and how they do it. For example, Massachusetts has an Executive Office of Elder Affairs and Boston has an Elderly Commission; both of these vet and fund nonprofits serving seniors. And Virginia has various Aging Services, and a group of its counties jointly sponsors a highly-rated retirement community (Birmingham Green). In my experience, these agencies are staffed with compassionate people who really want to help you. However, the best retirement advice available depends 100% on where you decide you are going to live!
Additional Sources for Best Retirement Advice
- Charities/Nonprofits. For the best retirement advice, I have two good sources for you here: (1) Charity Navigator lists more than 600 charities with the keyword “elder.” Although most are not rated, you can see what exists in your home area and consult its “990-N” disclosure form for in-depth information. (2) Charity Watch lists two highly rated charities in the “senior citizens” category: National Council on Aging and Unbound. These national organizations may be able to refer you to senior charities in your own community.
- Internet. Study the websites of senior citizen charities before you contact them. Are they transparent about their ownership and their finances? Are they truly nonprofits? (Some “dot-org” addresses belong to organizations that want to sell you something.) Do a Google search with the name of the charity and the word “review” to find reviews by unrelated third parties. Also, search Yelp.com for reviews.
If you can find one or more trustworthy senior help organizations in your area, they can help you discover reliable professionals in the following areas that we will now discuss.
2. Financial Plan
Do you have enough money to pay your expenses as you get older? Or will you eventually require Medicaid support? These are essential questions that the best retirement advice must answer.
If you aren’t confident you’re on the right financial track, a planner could help. Nola and I hired a local financial planner recommended by our tax preparer. For a flat fee he prepared a plan detailing our assets and likely expenses, and listed the estate planning documents we needed. He also reviewed our use of trusts, beneficiaries and TOD (transfer on death) designations.
The planner’s analysis found our investments were close to the theoretically optimum asset allocation. That showed that he couldn’t improve our investment performance sufficiently to pay his management fee. So we easily decided not to buy those services. Although we did not enlist him for investment management, the planning introduced him to both me and Nola, in case one of us might want to hire him as a manager in the future.
There was an additional bonus from our financial plan exercise. Our existing estate planning documents were over five years old and needed updating. However, the attorney we had used was almost an hour away from our home. At our request, the financial planner recommended a local attorney whom we then hired. She has done a great job for us.
3. Estate Attorney
The Trusted Representatives described in the part one blog gain their authority from documents that you create and sign. Those are prepared by an attorney with good knowledge of estate planning and your state’s elder laws. And that’s the next step in senior life planning.
Where do you find such an attorney? In addition to the general ideas in Sources for Help, try the following:
- If you have a lawyer in your family or among close friends, ask them to recommend an estate planning attorney.
- If you have dealt with a lawyer or financial professional, and you liked him or her, ask them to suggest a nearby estate planning firm.
- Search Google and Yelp.com for reviews of local law firms. Be sure to read the negative reviews. They are not always fair and accurate, but they help you see “how bad things might be.”
Your Attorney Is Also A Source
What if you have had trouble identifying Trusted Representatives to take on responsible roles if you become unable to? Your elder law attorney may be able to recommend a paid professional to take on one or more of those roles in case of need. Your attorney may even be able to serve as a conservator (financial representative) or guardian (health care representative).
The person with financial power of attorney in your documents should agree to serve as a “fiduciary” who is obligated to act solely in your best interest. A fiduciary role may already be required by the laws of your state, but it doesn’t hurt to cement that in writing.
Keep your key documents up to date. In time, a trusted representative, or a backup, may move out of your life. Or you may want to add or remove a beneficiary named in your will. Your attorney knows your state laws and can instruct you: when can you make these changes on your own, by preparing and signing a document; and when should the attorney prepare a formal amendment?
It’s important to make changes the right way, because your amendments may have to withstand a lawsuit from a disgruntled heir. This may seem impossible but I assure you it is true: some otherwise level-headed people go crazy when a will doesn’t grant them what they feel is their fair share. And when one family member gets litigious, everyone else may soon “lawyer up.”
We found it especially helpful to use an estate planning attorney located in our home town. Our Trusted Representatives are close family members, all of whom live in our city or regularly visit it. Therefore, we were able to have all the representatives join us at the attorney’s office. The attorney explained the documents. Our family members asked questions about their duties, and where would they find the documents “if Nola and Art got hit by a truck.” By introducing our representatives to the attorney, we all gained confidence that things will go smoothly when we someday need everyone’s support.
Note added 1/10/2019: State laws differ! If you prepare trust documents in one U.S. state and then move to a different state, the trust may not be valid in your new jurisdiction. Get a local attorney in your new state to check all your documents and make necessary changes. (my thanks to Bob A.)
Can You Save Money With Do It Yourself?
Does the best retirement advice have to cost a fortune? You have several choices when creating your estate planning documents, ranging from most to least expensive:
- Hire an attorney. You need one who is experienced in elder care law in your state of residence. If your assets are a few hundred thousand dollars to a few million dollars, you can expect to pay between a few hundred dollars and a few thousand dollars. In other words, 0.1%, more or less.
- Go cheap, online. Do you take pride in preparing your own tax returns using a tool such as TurboTax? Or, do you simply not want to pay an attorney’s fee? Then you may be tempted to use forms provided by one of the established online companies. Those will typically cost you less than $100. Or you can go “really cheap” and rely on the best retirement advice you can find online for free (which may be worth only what you paid for it).
Before you write your own will, read the Money magazine article “4 Things You Should Know Before You Make Your Own Will.” And before you write your own healthcare directive, download your state-specific instructions from AARP. These will protect you from the most obvious mistakes.
- Do Nothing. Do you care what might happen to those who outlive you? Then read “7 Nasty Things That Can Happen If You Die Without A Will.” Similarly, do you care what happens to you if you’re in a coma or unconscious? If you don’t have an Advance Directive, your medical decisions will be made by any relative the hospital can locate, or by a court-appointed guardian. If you don’t care about either of these things, you can opt to do nothing.
A DIY Caution
If you prepare your own income tax return and make some awful mistake, you can expect a letter from the IRS. You may have to eat crow and pay a penalty, but at least you’ll have a chance to correct it.
However, if you prepare your own will improperly, that’s not likely to be discovered until you’re gone. At that point you’re not able to fix the error. Similarly, if your Advance Directive is faulty, when you’re unconscious there’s no way for you to correct it.
Therefore, it’s clear: DIY senior planning documents entail more risk than DIY tax returns.
4. Medical Care
You also need the best retirement advice in the medical area.
If you’re old enough to consider senior life planning, you have probably acquired various ongoing medical conditions. Doctors call these conditions “chronic,” not because they are deadly, but because they persist for a long time or periodically recur. Chronic conditions are often monitored by experts, so you may be seeing several or even an armload of specialized physicians.
If your senior life planning calls for moving to a new location, you will need to find a new set of doctors in whom you have confidence. Don’t forget to collect a complete set of your medical records to take with you. You want to give your new doctors the baseline information that will enable them to give you the best possible treatment.
When you choose a new doctor, ask your friends for sure, but also read the reviews online. WebMD describes some rating sites and offers cautions about the value of ratings. Try to choose a doctor who has been at their current location for some years. (Hopefully, that suggests that they are not likely to move away to further their career.) As you get older, you’ll also be happier if you have doctors who are younger than you. You do not want to outlive all your doctors, having to shop for new ones during an illness!
The Choice of Hospitals
Most of us have confidence in our doctors. Those doctors in turn have “privileges” at certain hospitals. Granting privileges amounts to an endorsement of the doctor by the hospital, but also generally means that the doctor thinks well of the hospital. When my doctors associate themselves with a hospital, I generally find that the hospital does a good job.
What if your doctor has privileges at several hospitals and you need to choose a preferred one? Again, there are online reviews at several sites which can help. Yelp.com is a prolific and sometimes valuable source of medical reviews. Just remember that the most negative reviews may not represent a typical patient’s experience – dissatisfied clients are more likely to submit reviews than happy ones.
Give Them the Tools
Your trusted representatives can’t provide much help if they don’t have the right tools. Assemble all the key records in one location, and tell your trusted representatives where to find them in case of an emergency:
- Legal Documents: will, trust, power of attorney, healthcare directive. You can augment these with informal written advice for your representatives, for example exactly which medical procedures you don’t want.
- Assets and Online Accounts: a list of real estate, bank accounts, investments, other key assets, online accounts, social media accounts and websites, with account log-ins and passwords.
- Personal Electronics: passwords for your personal electronics, such as smartphones, computers, home security and house management devices.
- Medical History: a list of your doctors, medications, allergies, immunizations and ongoing medical conditions.
Now is the Time
Whatever your age, you need the best retirement advice now. Get your financial plan in place, execute your estate plan and select the doctors and hospitals you would rely on in an emergency. Hopefully, you won’t need these services for a long time, but you’re taking a big chance if you haven’t chosen them in advance.
With the previous blog and this one, you now have good plans in place for the future. The last important step is to select the best retirement community for your future needs. We’ll cover that step in the following blog, which will be the third segment of the topic Senior Life Planning.
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I have all the legal documents in place for myself that you mention, plus I am the “primary” who holds the financial power of attorney and advanced health care directive for two other people. But one of the things I have never been sure of is the best way to launch the activation of these powers and hand over control of that person’s life to their primary.
One example is the “hit by a truck” analogy you gave, a fairly common way for one of these legal entities to be triggered. That one is clear as to when it’s activated, but how does one of those legal states become “real” so you can hand someone a power of attorney (financial or legal) and have it accepted prior to a discussion or transaction? Do you need to see an attorney or a court to somehow convert the conditional PofA into a valid and active PofA, or is it sufficient to hand a person your conditional PofA along with the official Death Certificate? Even the latter isn’t certain in my mind because someone else could type up a PofA (or have an outdated one) and claim to be the representative if they could get their hands on the death certificate. I would think this would be a possibility in some contentious families.
But another example which gets much trickier is a deteriorating state such as dementia. That process plays out over years, with inexorable loss of abilities, and a gradual handoff of responsibilities, not all-at-once such as the “truck” outcome. Yes, the Trust or PofA can have words in it like requiring two doctors to concur that the person is no longer competent, but again that works best with a 100% handoff of all responsibilities. However, in my real-world experience the person doesn’t become incompetent overnight, but in stages which require greater and greater assistance.
But with dementia, a person can be in denial of their true limitations, and possibly unwilling to hand off responsibilities when they should. It is quite likely that the actual PofA activation might occur later than it should, just because the person might still be semi-competent, and still want complete control of their life even though they have lost the ability to handle the more complex financial issues in their life (like income taxes, or investment decisions).
I have not seen anything advising how best to handle such situations on the handoff.
And finally, there is the structure of the information itself. You mention the options, paper vs electronic, but I think of it as a big ball of twine. I would like to offer a convenient “end” of that twine so they can begin unraveling that ball with my help as to how it’s structured. But most of my own information is electronic, so how do I provide electronic access to my information? Just having the passwords to my system only opens the door to a very large room full of filing cabinets .. they are going to need help navigating that structure to find anything useful. I’ve done my best to name hierarchical folders to give some chance of finding information, and tried to cluster the information in reasonable ways, but those are reasonable for me for day-to-day use, not necessarily someone else with the one-time responsibility for wrapping up my life.
Further, I use a password manager for my own electronic access to all on-line resources, but the person functioning as my primary may not be facile with computers, or at least with my chosen type of computer (Macintosh in my case, PC/Windows in theirs). I want to make it as easy as possible but don’t want to go into a full tutorial on using computers or specific products.
I don’t believe the legal system and society has fully grappled with the consequences of the new digital world and how it changes what have been paper-driven processes.
Anyway, I don’t have answers for all the above … but I wanted to point out that there are additional issues that might apply in setting up these end-of-life plans which get messy.
Charles, thanks for raising these issues. They are indeed difficult, and don’t offer easy answers.
Because state laws differ, as Bob Anderson noted, and because the legal documents are subject to court jurisdiction, each of us would need to ask an attorney experienced in elder law / estate to walk us through all the “what if” scenarios that we worry about. However, at least I can comment on a few items:
1. You mention someone in a contentious family wanting to, essentially, hijack a PofA. I recall a recent scandal in Utah (can’t find the reference) where a man hired a doctor to declare several elders incompetent, then forged documents giving the man control of the elders’ assets. Naturally, there are laws against this, and state agencies supposedly watching to protect elders. But it can happen.
2. Mental deterioration can indeed occur. One reason to stay in close touch with our trusted advisors is that they can take some action if they think we are becoming incompetent and vulnerable. As you mention, documents typically contain conditions under which control passes to the PofA. If your PofA is indeed trustworthy, with your best interest at heart, they will accept this responsibility intelligently, that is, letting you continue to make decisions to the best of your ability. A lot of communication would be needed between the PofA, the elder, the elder’s doctors and the participating attorney. But this way, it wouldn’t be an instant 100% handoff, which as you point out is often not appropriate.
3. Concerning the information itself: key documents must be on paper. In my experience, attorneys prepare documents electronically and maintain an electronic archive, but there are always printed, signed hard copies that are kept in safe places, both by us and by the attorney. Our trusted representatives know exactly where to find our copies of those documents in case of need. They also have met the attorney and can contact her if they need to. Digital copies are secondary backups, not primary.
The legal documents themselves, as you point out, don’t cover account numbers, URLs and passwords that may be needed if someone is tidying up your affairs. Therefore, supplemental instructions may be needed. We have created a handbook, which we keep with our legal documents, giving instructions that cover these areas. It’s long (30 pages) but is far from exhaustive. The instructions reference specific filenames with account information that can be accessed on our computers and on our data backup services. Our heirs could hire the local geek service if they needed help to find and open those files. If this seems too complicated, then our heirs could simply phone our financial services, of which we have provided a list. If they call up, say, GM, or Fidelity, or Chase Bank and say so-and-so has passed away, those companies know how to validate the call and lead the survivor through whatever steps are appropriate.
I would like all my data to be available to my heirs, but realistically I know that isn’t possible; all I can do is to point them to what they may consider most important, and accept the fact that other things will probably be lost.
Art – I’d like to emphasize the “be local” advice you give. When we had a meeting with an attorney to update our trust document(s), we mentioned in passing that we were moving out of state soon. He immediately told us he could do nothing for us, because trust rules were different in Colorado than in California, and we’d need a local attorney there to handle the revisions. Be sure your trust documents reflect the state you’re going to, or in, if a move is contemplated or recently completed.
Good point and good advice, thanks Bob!