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A will is the best way for elders to protect their assets and distribute their possessions to family members and friends of their choice. (Photo by iStock)

Forward thinking helps navigate legal waters

MSU Extension Service

May is Older Americans Month …

STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Older Americans, along with their caregivers and families, can better navigate legal and financial waters related to aging by making appropriate plans, protecting their identities and being aware of scams.

Creating a will is the best way for elders to protect their assets and distribute their possessions to family members and friends of their choice, said Judith Breland, coordinator of the Stone County office of the Mississippi State University Extension Service. A will should name an executor who is responsible for making sure those wishes are met, and most wills have two witnesses who are not family members.

“While you can handwrite your own will if you have a simple estate and agreeable family, an attorney can provide information on what needs to be included, how to correctly word the document, and insure your estate is distributed the way you wish,” Breland said. “The sooner you take this step with parents, or other elder relatives who might need help, the better.

“Arrange a meeting with the attorney, and let them talk to the attorney,” she said. “If there are multiple siblings in the family, the children need to be included in the discussion so everyone knows what’s going on. When the whole family hears and reads the decisions made by the elders, the better off the family will be at the time a will is read. There will not be major surprises.”

Rita Green, an assistant professor and Extension family financial management specialist, said it is also crucial to plan ahead for emergencies with crucial legal documents. Power of attorney authorizes someone to legally act on behalf of another person. Medical power of attorney allows a person to make health care decisions on behalf of someone unable to make his or her own decisions.

“There are a lot of different types of powers of attorney, which determine the agent’s authority to act,” Green said. “In the case of a durable or general power of attorney, the agent is allowed to make any decisions they see that fit the situation on behalf of the principal. This power could potentially be abused, as in the instance of an agent who transfers funds out of bank accounts owned by the principal and into his or her own.”

Depending on their financial security, some people may want to start a trust fund, which holds and administers assets for the benefit of another person or organization. Grantors or donors provide the initial assets, and trustees manage the funds according to the donors’ instructions. People can establish trusts for themselves if they believe they will eventually become unable to manage their personal finances.

“The beneficiary receives payment from the fund as a lump sum or in periodic installments, according to the terms of the trust,” Green said. “Trust funds are often used to set aside property, investments or cash assets to provide for people who are unable to manage their finances for themselves, such as children or people who are ill.”

Documentation of important records for safekeeping is also key. In addition to being witnesses and executors for wills, family members of seniors should have copies of any important papers, such as deeds, military records, and bank account and insurance information.

“You should have a copy of the important papers in your possession, but the originals should be kept in a safe place like a bank box,” Breland said. “You don’t want to keep original copies of important papers at home because of the potential for loss of the documents. The executor and family members should know the location of the documents.”

Green said part of identity protection and general financial management includes properly disposing of outdated documents that contain personal details and avoiding financial offers made over the telephone.

“Protect older Americans’ identities by shredding important documents that are no longer relevant. Secure confidential information and check their credit on a regular basis,” Green said. “Investigate any financial offers as potential scams. Seniors are often targeted for bank scams, and the lesson is very costly. Call the Better Business Bureau, the Attorney General’s Office, Secretary of State’s office, your bank, local attorneys or a trusted friend to make sure the offer is legitimate.”

Released: May 22, 2015
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  • A will is the best way for elders to protect their assets and distribute their possessions to family members and friends of their choice. (Photo by iStock)
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