No one can predict what the future holds, and it can be difficult, even scary, to envision anything other than the best-case scenario for yourself and those you love. However, it’s important to be realistic about what the future may bring and to put a few contingency plans in place if things don’t turn out as hoped. This is especially true when it comes to planning for one’s later years. A serious event such as a heart attack, stroke, or accident, or a diagnosis like dementia can derail even the best laid plans.

Encouraging your aging loved ones to get their affairs in order (and doing the same for yourself) is crucial. Doing so can make it much easier, both logistically and emotionally, for a trusted individual to step in and seamlessly manage healthcare and finances for a person who has lost the ability to make decisions for themselves.

Talking about Legal, Financial and Health Care Planning with Parents

Discussing these matters with family can be tough but making these preparations together can help everyone achieve peace of mind and ensure everyone is ready for any difficult questions and scenarios that may arise.

When a family isn’t prepared for the prospect of caregiving and incapacitation, there are serious legal hurdles that can prevent adult children from being involved in a parent’s care. In these cases, lengthy and expensive guardianship proceedings will be necessary to gain the ability to manage an elder’s medical care and financial affairs. This can be a harrowing experience for everyone involved.

Read: How to Get Guardianship of a Senior

“Being prepared is extremely important from a practical standpoint, but it is also easier on everyone emotionally,” says Rajiv Nagaich, an elder law attorney based in the Seattle area. “It can be gentler, because your family member feels as if they’re making the decision to hand over control, instead of waiting until it’s too late and feeling like it’s being wrested away from them.”

Timing Is Everything

Getting one’s affairs in order well in advance is critical because a person must have the legal capacity to sign official documents. Even if someone has only just been diagnosed with dementia, the disease may already be affecting their decision-making abilities. On the other hand, in the early stages, some seniors are still competent to sign legal documents. It depends entirely on the progression of the disease and how lucid the person is.

Read: Legal Competency: When Is It Too Late to Create a Will, Trust or POA?

Most elders are resistant when it comes to discussing or acting on these matters, but it’s better to handle such decisions long before they need to be made, when they’re still of sound mind.

Browse Our Free Senior Care Guides

“If you approach it from the perspective of helping your parents protect their assets and ensure their healthcare wishes are respected, that could encourage them to help make decisions now,” Nagaich advises. Unfortunately, though, it often doesn’t happen early enough.

Legal Documents Every Senior Needs

In addition to a last will and testament, the following legal and financial documents can help the entire family avoid emotionally draining and costly court battles.

  • Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care
    This document allows a person (the principal) to give a trusted individual (the agent) the ability to make medical decisions on their behalf. These decisions could relate to treatments, health care providers, end-of-life care and organ donations. This document also gives the agent access to the principal’s medical records.
  • Durable Power of Attorney for Finances
    This document allows the principal to give a trusted agent the ability to make financial decisions on their behalf. These decisions could include paying bills, selling property, filing taxes and managing investments.
  • Living Will
    A living will is an advance healthcare directive that allows a person to record their wishes for end-of-life care before a medical crisis strikes. This document essentially spells out instructions for a medical POA to follow when making decisions so that they don’t have the difficult task of speculating what kinds of treatments their loved one would have wanted or refused.

Keep in mind that an elder law attorney can work with a client to ensure their legal documents reflect their unique wishes. Power of attorney (POA) documents can provide an agent with very broad or very narrow powers and can take effect immediately or upon the principal’s incompetence. Living wills can also be personalized to stipulate what kinds of medical care a person wants in specific scenarios.

If a person has not engaged in health and financial planning and develops dementia or has an accident that leaves them incapable of making decisions for themselves, then their family will have to go to court to gain the right to participate in their care. Communicating early and getting the legal documents in place before it gets to this point can help the whole family feel prepared and confident about whatever the future may bring.