Managing Bills and Expenses for a Sick or Aging Parent: What Michigan Families Need to Know

Managing Bills and Expenses for a Sick or Aging Parent: What Michigan Families Need to Know

For many families, the responsibility for managing an elderly parent’s finances often falls to members of the “Sandwich Generation” — that is, their adult children, many of whom juggle senior care while raising kids of their own at the same time. 

If you are considering stepping in and helping an elderly loved one to take care of their bills and expenses, it is important to understand all of the crucial steps you must take — and all of the mechanisms available to help you protect your loved one and empower them to maintain control, should they ever become incapacitated and unable to handle their own affairs. 

Should you find yourself in a position where you must take action to manage an aging parent’s bills, expenses, and assets, know that you are not alone. 

Many older adults find it more difficult to manage money and financial matters over time, for any number of reasons. Physical restrictions, for example, can make it harder for elderly adults to access their safety deposit boxes, maintain their real estate investments, or even sign checks. Memory loss, dementia, and other cognitive changes can affect a senior’s ability to handle financial matters and communicate effectively with family members or advisors. Many older adults may have been dependent on a spouse to handle the family finances, and find themselves unable to keep up now that they’re gone. Others find themselves coping with health challenges that can make it hard to stay current on their bills — while adding to their expenses, each and every day.

What’s more, financial security experts agree that older adults are uniquely vulnerable to financial abuse or manipulation. In fact, one report cited by CNBC suggests that senior citizens collectively lose more than $3 billion a year to scams and fraud. 

For older adults, the consequences of mismanaging one’s finances could be significant, even beyond the very real risk of falling victim to fraud or undue influence. Failing to keep up with mortgage or rent payments could result in foreclosure or eviction. Forgetting to pay the utility bills could result in losing access to heat or power. Reckless spending may cause seniors to lose their nest eggs, or permanently damage their credit.

Talking About Finances With a Senior Loved One: Getting the Conversation Started

Many older adults expect to turn to their adult children for assistance with handling financial matters. However, studies suggest that there may be somewhat of a breakdown when it comes to communication on these important topics. 

A 2016 study published by the financial services firm Fidelity, for instance, found that 69 percent of parents expect one of their children to “help manage their investments and retirement finances” — yet “more than one-third (36 percent) of the kids identified as filling this role didn’t know this.“

The same study found that 34 percent of parents have not had “detailed conversations” about their living expenses in retirement — while another 16 percent “have not had any conversations on the topic at all.”

As a loving and concerned family member, it may fall to you to take action and move these crucial discussions forward. As with conversations around estate planning, probate, and other sensitive life topics, it may help to start these conversations early — that is, before you and your parents face an emergency or crisis that requires quick action. As much as possible, work with your parents, and be patient and empathetic to their needs and concerns. Don’t expect to handle all of these weighty topics in one go. Many people also find it beneficial to begin more casually, and enter into these big conversations by starting small — by, say, focusing on a recent news story, or talking about a situation faced by a family friend or relative. 

In other cases, it may help to bring in an outside mediator. An experienced and trusted attorney, for instance, can help you advance the conversation while addressing everyone’s concerns and helping you to gain a better understanding of the many courses of action available based on your unique situation. 

Of course, there may also be a time when adult children “need to be more hands-on,” as Eileen Ambrose and Sandra Block once noted in an article for Kiplinger. This may include getting to know your parents’ financial advisors, while also taking steps to learn more about their assets “and how they have been spending money” — such as helping your parents to review their monthly bills, credit card statements, insurance policies, benefit plans, and other financial records. 

Taking time to perform this oversight may result in you noticing some red flags that something is amiss — such as your parent regularly missing important bill payments, or racking up unusual charges on their bank or credit card statements. If an elderly loved one is unable to talk about their finances, explain their decisions, or keep track of different accounts and records, this could also be an indicator that additional help is warranted. 

Managing a Sick or Aging Parent’s Finances

Whether your loved one simply needs an extra set of eyes to safeguard their financial well-being, or requires more significant intervention to protect their finances, it’s important to have an understanding of all of the options and legal mechanisms available.

In some cases, older adults may prefer an arrangement that empowers a trusted family member to help out, such as creating a joint bank or credit card account. As the AARP notes, this is often one of the “easiest” ways “to pay a loved one’s bills and keep track of expenses:”

If your loved one is in the early days of a progressive disease such as dementia or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), having a second person on the account is essential. When needed, that person can step in as a money manager to pay bills, make deposits and withdrawals, and monitor the balance to make sure your loved one is not being scammed or financially exploited.

However, this arrangement is not without risks. If an untrustworthy person is granted account access, they could easily steal from the senior. This situation may also open up family members to the responsibility of having to deal directly with creditors, and creating the arrangement could contribute to family discord and disagreements.

Oftentimes, a family member’s options to interface with financial institutions or help a senior parent or loved one manage their finances can be quite limited unless the child is made a fiduciary — that is, someone who is authorized to act on behalf of their parent. A fiduciary is held to a high legal standard of conduct, and is expected to act fairly and put the needs of the individual and their estate above their own. 

For Michigan families, there are many different courses of action and legal mechanisms to consider based on your specific situation, including: 

Powers of Attorney

A power of attorney for financial matters is a legal document that gives someone of your choosing (known as the agent or attorney-in-fact) the right to handle your financial affairs. A durable power of attorney allows this authority to remain in place should you ever become incapacitated — meaning that you do not need to give up control of your affairs while you still have the capability to manage them, but can sleep well knowing you have a plan in place in case you do not.

Creating a power of attorney does not require the involvement of the court. As long as you are of sound mind and body, you can execute a valid durable power of attorney by signing the document in front of a notary or two witnesses. Powers of attorney can be quite broad or limited in scope, depending on the circumstances. In addition to planning for incapacity, older adults may consider using powers of attorney to grant a trusted loved one the ability to deal with a specific account, access their financial records, pursue claims or actions on their behalf, or handle a specific financial transaction when they cannot manage it on their own. 

Trusts

A trust is a written agreement which names an individual who is responsible for managing select property and assets, as directed by a trust agreement. This person is known as the trustee; the person who creates the trust is known as the settlor or grantor. 

There are many different types of trusts, designed for any number of different circumstances. Broadly speaking, once a trust is created, the settlor must retitle their chosen assets into it — this could include investments and securities, tangible personal property, bank accounts, business interests, and real estate.

One of the most popular and common types of trusts used in Michigan is the revocable living trust. Also known as an inter vivos trust, this type of trust can be filled, modified, or revoked as long as the grantor is of sound mind. Most commonly, the grantor will name themselves as the trustee, in order to maintain control over the trust assets for as long as they are able to do so. Should the settlor ever become unable to perform their duties as trustee due to incapacity or death, a successor trustee would be granted the legal responsibility of managing the trust assets. 

In other cases, an older adult may choose to name a trusted family member or professional fiduciary as the trustee immediately, in order to give them the power to control, maintain, and distribute the trust assets. For example, this could allow an adult child to assume the responsibility for managing investments or selling real property placed into the trust, ensuring that any relevant transactions are able to move forward.

Conservatorship

A conservator is a person appointed by a court to manage the assets, property, and finances of a protected individual. Conservatorships are established when a court determines that an individual can no longer effectively manage his or her own property and financial decisions for reasons such as “mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication, confinement, detention by a foreign power, or disappearance.” The court must also find that: 

the individual has property that will be wasted or dissipated unless proper management is provided, or money is needed for the individual’s support, care, and welfare or for those entitled to the individual’s support, and that protection is necessary to obtain or provide money.

In order for a conservator to be appointed, a petitioner must file with the probate court. The court will then investigate the facts of the situation, and a hearing will be held to determine if a conservatorship will be necessary, and, if so, to select a suitable conservator who will be willing and able to serve. 

Anyone interested in an individual’s estate, affairs, or welfare may petition for conservatorship; An individual can also request the appointment of a conservator for themselves, if they recognize that they are unable to manage their property and affairs effectively due to age or physical infirmity. When considering the need for a conservatorship, the courts will consider if the individual has any other alternative solutions in place, such as a durable power of attorney. Establishing a conservatorship can be complex, time intensive, and may open the door to heated family disagreements and litigation. Bear in mind that the decision to appoint a conservator for an individual is a very serious matter, since, ultimately, the Michigan probate court will take away some of the individual’s basic rights. 

Guardianship

If an aging parent has become incapacitated and unable to take care of their basic needs, a guardianship may also be considered. 

Broadly speaking, a guardian is a substitute decision-maker for an incapacitated individual (known as the “ward”). Guardians are responsible for looking out for the general well-being and care of their ward. Whereas a conservator is responsible for the care and preservation of all the individual’s assets and property, a guardian is broadly responsible for making medical, housing, and other personal decisions for them. This might include providing suitable food and clothing; providing shelter and determining where the individual lives; applying for specialized services on their behalf; and authorizing or refusing medical care.

As with a conservatorship, establishing a guardianship requires going before the probate court. In order for a guardian to be appointed, a concerned individual must file a petition explaining why the guardianship is needed. A hearing is then held to consider the request, and a judge will determine whether or not a guardianship is needed, who will serve as guardian, and what powers the guardian will have. 

Depending on the specific needs of the ward, a guardian’s powers can be quite broad or fairly limited. Michigan law is designed to “encourage the development of maximum self-reliance and independence in the individual,” and allows for guardianships to be closely tailored to the individual’s unique situation. Accordingly, Michigan’s Estates and Protected Individuals Code (EPIC) states that “the court shall grant a guardian only those powers and only for that period of time as is necessary to provide for the demonstrated need of the incapacitated individual.” A court order establishing a guardianship must also specify “any limitations on the guardian’s powers and any time limits on the guardianship.”

You Don’t Need to Face These Complex Decisions Alone

If you are one of the millions of people here in Michigan and around the country acting as a caregiver for an aging parent, it is important to understand all of your options and find a workable path forward. 

There are many personal factors and pressing decisions involved when it comes to assuring that your loved one’s finances will be managed, their well-being taken care of, and their wishes carried out when they can no longer make or communicate informed financial decisions for themselves.

Talking with an experienced attorney is a crucial first step to protecting your loved ones. A knowledgeable estate and probate attorney can help you get a handle on the specifics of your unique circumstances, consider all of the courses of action available to you and your family, and prepare in advance for any potential complications or difficulties that may arise.

We’re Here to Help You Protect the Important Things

Interested in discussing incapacity planning for yourself or a loved one? Do you have questions about any type of estate planning tool or technique? Ready to start getting a handle on the specifics of your unique situation? 

At the Law Office of Dean E. Patrick, PLLC, we put our legal experience and skills together with our commitment to excellence in representing your rights. You can depend on our law firm’s ability to listen to you and our talent for creative strategies.

You and your family can rest assured knowing that our office is handling your matter with professionalism and expertise. Our meeting schedules are flexible in order to accommodate your needs and we work hard to discuss these difficult matters in terms that are easy to comprehend. Our office is conveniently located in Southfield, Michigan and our staff is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to receive phone calls and help you with your legal matters.

If you have any more questions or are looking for representation as you navigate Michigan’s tricky probate court system, don’t hesitate to contact our office at (833) 469-4897 to set up your initial consultation. You may also click here to get in touch online.

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