Fall River Herald News: Seniors Urged to be Prepared

By Deborah Allard - GateHouse News Service - May 18, 2009

Bristol Elder Services and Senior Whole Health, an insurance program for elders with low incomes, teamed up recently to educate seniors and their caregivers about the importance of estate planning.

Attorney Jane Sullivan, who has more than 23 years of experience in her field, gave the presentation about health care proxies, living wills, durable power of attorney, homestead declarations, and wills.

"The more information we can get out to the people ... the sooner they start the better," Sullivan said.

The whole idea of having these certain documents in place is to help an elder have their wishes carried out, whether medical or end-of-life, Sullivan explained.

Health care proxy

A health care proxy names someone who can communicate a person's wishes concerning health care matters if they become incapacitated.

"It's who we want in charge of our medical decisions," Sullivan said.

In Massachusetts, pre-printed health care proxy forms are available and can be completed without an attorney. The form needs to be signed and witnessed by two people. Copies should be given to all pertinent physicians and to the chosen person or people who are taking on the responsibility.

Health care proxy forms and information can be found on the Massachusetts Medical Society Web site at www.massmed.org or in hospitals and doctors' offices.

Living will

A living will is another useful form that outlines specific directives about a person's health care. For example, it can state whether someone wants life support or other heroic treatments.

Though it is not legally binding in Massachusetts as a health care proxy is, it can be a helpful document to accompany the health care proxy, Sullivan said.

"You're in charge until your doctor says you can't make the decision yourself," Sullivan said.

HIPPA release

The HIPPA, or Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, release is a document that allows someone else to gain a person's health care information.

Sullivan said it might be a son or daughter, or someone else the patients trusts. It allows them to speak to a physician on the patient's behalf. The patient can choose what information they'd like to share and can cancel that permission at any time. Those documents are available in physician offices and healthcare facilities.

DNR order

A "Do Not Resuscitate" order can be obtained through a physician. It simply states that a patient does not want to be resuscitated if breathing stops naturally.

Durable power of attorney

This document names someone to manage a person's financial and legal affairs in the event they cannot do it themselves. It could mean writing checks or handling a bank account. A durable power of attorney is effective as long as the person is alive, though it can be revoked. "It can be very comprehensive and should be updated every few years," Sullivan said. Legal advice should be sought in filing for a durable power of attorney.

Homestead declaration

"For most people, their home is their most valuable asset," Sullivan said.

A declaration of homestead gives a homeowner of any age $500,000 of protection against creditors. It can be filed at the Registrar's Office or completed by an attorney for about $100.

It can prevent a creditor from taking a person's house for payment.

Will

"A will is your way of telling everybody who you want to leave your assets to," Sullivan said. "It takes effect when you pass away. You can leave it to whoever you want or (an agency or cause)."

An attorney can help with the planning or updating of a will.

"Even if an elder is declining, it's not too late to sign those documents," Sullivan said.

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