Can A Cell Phone Video Become a Will?
Old woman making a statement with her smartphone

Can A Cell Phone Video Become a Will?

What if a grandmother made a statement, while in an intensive care unit, that she wanted everything she owned to go to a grandchild and a brother-in-law? What if that statement was captured on a cellphone as a video? The question was a real one, posed by a reader of My San Antonio in the article “Can a video be used as a Will?”

There are two reasons why a cellphone video is unlikely to be accepted as a will by any court. One is that the cellphone video does not follow the formality of how a will is created and executed. Another is the statute of frauds, which basically says that to be lawfully valid, certain promises must be in writing.

Not only does a will need to be in writing, it must show clear intent to dispose of assets after death. The writing must be dated and signed by the person who is making the promise (the testator). If the will is written by the testator in his or her handwriting, it is known as a “holographic” will. If the will is typed or in someone else’s handwriting other than the testator, which is known as a “formal will,” then it must also be signed by two independent witnesses and must be notarized. The person who is having the will created (again, the testator), must also have legal capacity for the will to be valid.

In some states, including Texas, there was a time when a spoken will, known an a “nuncupative will” could have been recognized. However, that is no longer the case and a verbal will is no longer valid. Even when a nuncupative will was accepted, it was only accepted for inexpensive personal effects, not large assets or real property.

Some states, including Florida and Nevada, now allow a person to make a will online or on their computer and never have it transferred to paper. These are called “digital” or “electronic” wills. In these cases, e-signatures are allowed to be used. Other states have considered bills allowing digital wills, but the bills did not pass. The Florida law allows the digital will to be e-signed, but it must be witnessed by two independent individuals and it must be e-notarized. It should be noted that the will process is not permitted to be used by a person, who is in an end-stage illness or who is legally considered a “vulnerable adult.”

In the state of Texas, the grandmother in the example above is considered to have died without a will, meaning that she died “intestate.” Texas law will determine how her assets are distributed, and that will depend on her relationships and her survivors. If she was married and all children are from that marriage, her assets go to her spouse. If she was married and had children from a prior marriage, her assets are split unevenly between those children and her spouse. If there is no spouse, assets go to her children. There is a tremendous burden placed on the heirs of those who die without a will, since it does take a long time to figure out who their heirs are.

If she had a properly executed legal will, all these issues would be moot. Anyone who owns a home needs to have a will, and this should have been something that was taken care of, long before she became ill.

For more information about Utah’s laws regarding video wills, consult an estate planning attorney.

Reference: My San Antonio (Feb. 18, 2019) “Can a video be used as a Will?”

Spare Your Family From a Feud: Make Sure You Have a Will

If for no other reason than to avoid fracturing the family, as they squabble over who gets Aunt Nina’s sideboard or Uncle Bruno’s collection of baseball cards, everyone needs a will. It is true that having an estate plan created does require us to consider what we want to happen after we have died, which most of us would rather not think about.

However, whether we want to think about it or not, having an estate plan in place, and that includes a will, is a gift of peace we give to our loved ones and ourselves. It’s peace of mind that our family is being told exactly what we want them to do after we pass, and peace of mind to ourselves that we’ve put our plan into place.

A recent article from Fatherly, “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know,” starts with the basic premise that a will prevents family squabbles. Families fight, when they don’t have clear direction of what the deceased wanted. That’s just one reason to have a last will and testament. However, there are other reasons.

A will is one way to ensure that your property is eventually distributed as you wish. Without a will, your estate is administered as an “intestate estate,” which means the state’s laws will determine who receives your assets after you pass. In some states, that means your spouse gets half of your estate, with your parents getting the rest (if there are no children). If the parents have died and there are no children, the rest of the estate may go to your siblings.

Most people—some studies say as many as 60% of Americans—don’t have a will. It’s hard to say why they don’t: maybe they don’t want to accept their own mortality, maybe they don’t understand what will happen when they die without a will, or perhaps they want to wreak havoc on their families. However, having a will is essential.

Don’t delay. If you don’t have a will in place, stop putting it off. Creating a will gives you the opportunity to effectuate your wishes, not that of the state. What if you don’t want your long-lost brother showing up just to receive a portion of your estate? If you don’t want someone to receive any of your assets, you need to have a will. Otherwise, there’s no way to know how the distribution will play out.

Be thoughtful about how you distribute your assets. If you have children and your will gives them your assets when they reach 18, will they be prepared to manage without blowing their inheritance in a month? A qualified estate planning attorney will be able to help you create a plan for distributing your wealth to children or other heirs in a sequence that will match their financial abilities. You may want to create a trust that will hold the assets, with a trustee who can ensure that assets are distributed in a wise and timely manner.

Every family is different, and today’s families, which often include children from prior marriages, require special planning. If you have remarried and have not legally adopted your spouse’s children from a previous marriage, they are not your legal heirs. If you want to make sure they inherit money or a specific asset, you’ll need to state that clearly in your will. If you are not married to your partner, they will not have any rights to your estate, unless a will is created that directs the assets you want them to inherit.

Parents of young children absolutely need a will. If you do not, and both parents pass away at the same time, their future will be determined by the court. They could end up in foster care, while awaiting a court decision. Battling grandparents may create a tumultuous situation. The court could also name a guardian who you would never have chosen. A will lets you decide.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure you have a will that is properly prepared and follows the laws of your state. You also want to have a power of attorney and a health care agent named. Having these plans made before you need them, gives you the ability to express your wishes in a way that can be legally enforced.

Reference: Fatherly (Feb. 6, 2019) “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know”

Kids Grown Up? Protect Them with These Three Documents
Protect your family with these three documents.

Kids Grown Up? Protect Them with These Three Documents

Without the right documents in place, you do not have the legal right to protect your own children, once they turn 18, says The National Law Review in an unsettling but must-read article titled “Three Critical Legal Documents Every Parent Should Get in Place Now to Safeguard Their Adult Children.”

There are only three documents and they are fairly straightforward. There is no reason not to have them in place. If your adult child was incapacitated by an accident or an illness, you would want to speak with the medical staff to find out how they are and what decisions need to be made. Whether you were making a phone call or arriving at the hospital, a nurse or doctor would not be permitted to speak with you about your own adult child’s condition or be involved with making any medical decisions.

It sounds unreasonable, and perhaps it is, but that is the law. There are steps you can take to ensure that you are not in this situation.

HIPAA Authorization Form gives you the authority to speak with healthcare providers. This is a federal law (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) that safeguards who can access an adult’s private health data. HIPAA prevents healthcare providers from revealing any information to you or anyone else about a patient’s status. The practitioners could face severe penalties for violating HIPAA.

This is why you want to have a HIPAA authorization signed by your adult child and naming you as an authorized recipient.  This will give you the ability to ask for and receive information about your child’s health status, progress and treatment. This is especially important, if your child is unconscious or in an unresponsive state. The alternative? Going to court. That’s not what you want to be doing during a health emergency.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney needs to be in place, so you can be named his or her “medical agent” and have the ability to view their medical records and make informed decisions on their behalf. Without this (or a court-appointed guardianship), healthcare decisions will be in the hands of healthcare providers only. That’s not a bad thing, if you implicitly trust your child’s doctor. However, if your child is incapacitated in an out-of-town hospital with healthcare providers you don’t know, you will want to be able to make decisions on his or her behalf.

Note that physicians prefer a single medical agent, not a handful. The concern is that if time is a critical factor and a group of family members do not agree on care, it may compromise the healthcare services that can be provided. You can name multiple agents in priority order. A mother might be listed as the medical agent, and if she is unable or unwilling to serve, the second person would be the father.

The third document is a General Power of Attorney. This would give you the right to make financial decisions on your child’s behalf, if they were to become incapacitated. You would have the legal right to manage bank accounts, pay bills, sign tax returns, apply for government benefits, break or apply a lease and conduct activities on behalf of your child. Without this document, you won’t be able to help your child without a court-appointed conservatorship.

Keep in mind that these documents need to be updated every few years. If you try to use an older document, the bank or hospital may not accept them. Your adult child also has the ability to revoke these documents at any time, just by saying they revoke them or by putting it in writing. If you have an adult child living out of state, you want to have these documents prepared for your home state and their state of residence.

Finally, this is not a time to download forms and hope for the best. An estate planning attorney will know more specifically what forms are used in your state and help you make sure that they are prepared correctly.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 11, 2019) “Three Critical Legal Documents Every Parent Should Get in Place Now to Safeguard Their Adult Children”

Retiring Business Owners, What’s Going to Happen to Your Business?
37204586 - compass with needle pointing the word retirement, concept image to illustrate retirement planning

Retiring Business Owners, What’s Going to Happen to Your Business?

When the business owner retires, what happens to employees, clients and family members all depends on what the business owner has planned, asks an article from Florida Today titled “Estate planning for business owners: What happens to your business when you leave?” One task that no business owner should neglect, is planning for what will happen when they are no longer able to run their business, for a variety of reasons.

The challenge is, with no succession plan, the laws of the state will determine what happens next. If you started your own business to have more control over your destiny, then you don’t want to let the laws of your state determine what happens, once you are incapacitated, retired or dead.

Think of your business succession plan as an estate plan for your business. It will determine what happens to your property, who will be in charge of the transition and who will make decisions about whether to keep the business going or to sell it.

Your estate planning attorney will need to review these issues with you:

Control and decision-making. If you are the sole owner, who will make critical decisions in your absence? If there are multiple owners, how will decisions be made? Discuss in advance your vision for the company’s future, and make sure that it’s in writing, executed properly with an attorney’s help.

What about your family and employees? If members of your family are involved in the business, work out who you want to take the leadership reins. Be as objective as possible about your family members. If the business is to be sold, will key employees be given an option of buying out the family interest? You’ll also need a plan to ensure that the business continues in the period between your ownership and the new owner, in order to retain its value.

Plan for changing dynamics. Maybe family members and employees tolerated each other while you are in charge, but if that relationship is not great, make sure plans are enacted so the business will continue to operate, even if years of resentment come spilling out after you die. Your employees may be counting on you to protect them from family members, or your family may be depending upon you to protect them from disgruntled employees or managers. Either way, do what you can in advance to keep everyone moving forward. If the business falls apart the minute you are gone, there won’t be anything to sell or for the next generation to carry on.

How your business is structured, will have an impact on your succession plan. If there are significant liability elements to your business, risk management should also be built into your future plans.

To make your succession plan work, you will need to integrate it with your personal estate plan. If you have a Last Will and Testament in a Florida-based business, the probate judge will appoint someone to run the business, and then the probate court will have administrative control over the business, until it’s sold. That probably isn’t what you had in mind, after your years of working to build a business. Speak with an estate planning attorney to find out what structures will work best, so your business succession plan and your estate plan will work seamlessly without you.

Reference: Florida Today (Feb. 12, 2019) “Estate planning for business owners: What happens to your business when you leave?”

Suggested Key Terms: Business Owner, Succession Plan, Estate Planning Attorney, Key Employees

A Love Letter to Your Family
Senior couple meeting with an elder law attorney

A Love Letter to Your Family

Now, to the 70% of Americans who do not have an estate plan, the article “Senior Spotlight: Composing the ‘family love letter’” from the Lockport Journal should help you understand why this is so important. One reason why people don’t take care of this simple task, is because they don’t fully understand why estate planning is needed. They think it’s only for the wealthy, or that it’s only for old people, or even that it’s only about death and taxes.

Consider this idea: an estate plan is about protecting yourself while you are alive, protecting your family when you have passed and leaving a legacy for the living.

Some of the main elements of an estate plan are to create and execute documents that provide for incapacity and death, as well as provide information about your assets, liabilities and wishes.

You’ve spent a lifetime accumulating assets. It is now time to sit down with family members and have a heart-to-heart talk about the details of the estate and what your intentions are with respect to its distribution. The subject of death can be challenging for all. However, discussing your estate plan is vital, if you want to protect your family from what might come after you are gone. Each family has its own goals, so it’s a good idea to talk about it frankly, while you still can.

Without discussions and an estate, the chances of a family split, assets not going where you had intended and unnecessarily higher costs in taxes and legal fees, are a very real possibility.

If speaking about these topics is too hard, you may want to write your family a love letter. It would contain all the information that your family would need at the time of your death or if you become incapacitated because of illness or injury.

Your estate plan should also include the documents needed, so your family can make decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated. That includes a power of attorney, a health care directive and may include others specific to your situation.

Ideally, all this information will be located in one convenient place. Don’t put it on a computer where you use a password. If the family cannot access your computer, all your hard work will be useless to them. Put it in a folder or a notebook, that is clearly labeled and tell family members where it is.

They’ll need this information:

  • A list of your important contacts — your estate planning attorney, financial advisor, CPA, insurance broker and medical professionals.
  • Credit card information, frequent flier miles.
  • Insurance and benefits including all health, life, disability, long-term care, Medicare, property deeds, employment and any military benefits.
  • Documents including your will, power of attorney, birth certificates, military papers, divorce decrees and citizenship papers.

Think of these materials and discussions as your opportunity to make a statement for the future generation. If you don’t have an estate plan in place already or if you have not reviewed your estate plan in more than a few years, it’s time to make an appointment for a review. Your life may have not changed, but tax laws have, and you’ll want to be sure your estate is not entangled in old strategies that no longer benefit your family.

Reference: Lockport Journal (Feb. 16, 2019) “Senior Spotlight: Composing the ‘family love letter’”

When Was the Last Time You Talked with Your Estate Planning Attorney?
48479279 - what you need to know

When Was the Last Time You Talked with Your Estate Planning Attorney?

If you haven’t had a talk with your estate planning attorney since before the TCJA act went into effect, now would be a good time to do so, says The Kansas City Star in the article “Talk to estate attorney about impacts of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” While most of the news about the act centered on the increased exemptions for estate taxes, there are a number of other changes that may have a direct impact on your taxes.

Start by looking at any wills or trusts that were created before the tax act went into effect. If any of the trusts use formulas that are tied to the federal estate tax exemption, there could be unintended consequences because of the higher exemption amounts.

The federal estate tax exemption doubled from $5.49 million per person in 2017 to $11.18 million per person in 2018 (or $22.36 million per couple). It is now $11.2 million per person in 2019 (or $22.4 million per couple).

Let’s say that your trust was created in 2001, when the estate tax exemption was a mere $675,000. Your trust may have stipulated that your children receive the amount of assets that could be passed free from federal estate tax, and the remainder, which exceeded the federal estate tax exemption, goes to your spouse. At the time, this was a perfectly good strategy. However, if it hasn’t been updated since then, your children will receive $11.4 million and your spouse could be disinherited.

Trusts drafted prior to 2011, when portability was introduced, require particular attention.

Two other important factors to consider are portability and step-up of cost basis. In the past, many couples relied on the use of bypass or credit shelter trusts that pay income to the surviving spouse and then eventually pass trust assets on to the children, upon the death of the surviving spouse. This scenario made sure to use the first deceased spouse’s estate exemption.

However, new legislation passed in 2011 allowed for portability of the deceased spouse’s unused estate exemption. The surviving spouse’s estate can now use any exemption that wasn’t used by the first spouse to die.

A step-up in basis was not changed by the TCJA law, but this has more significance now. When a person dies, their heir’s cost basis of many assets becomes the value of the asset on the date that the person died. Highly appreciated assets that avoided income taxes to the decedent, could avoid or minimize income taxes to the heirs. Maintaining the ability for assets to receive a step-up in basis is more important now, because of the size of the federal estate tax exemption.

Beneficiaries who inherit assets from a bypass or credit shelter trust upon the surviving spouse’s death, no longer benefit from a “second” step-up in basis. The basis of the inheritance is the original basis from the first spouse’s death. Therefore, bypass trusts are less useful than in the past, and could actually have negative income tax consequences for heirs.

If your current estate plan has not been amended for these or other changes, make an appointment soon to speak with a qualified estate planning attorney. It may not take a huge overhaul of the entire estate plan, but these changes could have a negative impact on your family and their future.

Reference: The Kansas City Star (Feb. 7, 2019) “Talk to estate attorney about impacts of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”

The Dark Side of Reverse Mortgages for Seniors
reverse mortgage

The Dark Side of Reverse Mortgages for Seniors

It sounds great, even if you know that the reverse mortgages are known to be a little on the pricey side. However, unexpected circumstances can make this last-chance-to-save-your-retirement strategy backfire in a big way. Just ask Evelyn Boice, who is still wearing the same clothing that she brought to babysit her grandchildren last February. The Union Leader shares her story in the article “Silver Linings: Reverse mortgages for seniors–Lifestyle Maintenance or money pit?”

It seems that a flood at Evelyn’s retirement home caused by burst pipes led to a financial disaster. She’s 83 and didn’t expect to spend her last years living in an apartment attached to her daughter’s home. She’s got a chair, a TV, a bed and a kitchen stool. Everything she owned was destroyed in the flood.

She does have a lot of notebooks—stacks of confusing and incomplete financial statements loaded with indecipherable charges, including a $35 charge every time she calls the reverse mortgage company for help. She’s got threatening letters about being in default, while she waits for the mortgage lender to release an insurance check for $48,651 that she would use to salvage what’s left of her home.

When she called the insurance company, she heard an awful comment from someone at the office: “Why doesn’t she just hurry up and die?”

Boice took out a reverse mortgage in 2007 and used $50,000 of a $200,000 loan to make emergency repairs after Hurricane Wilma struck her home, blowing out windows and doors. However, the danger comes, when homeowners don’t have enough money to live on and maintain their homes, make essential repairs or pay for insurance and property taxes. That’s non-negotiable with a reverse mortgage. Any kind of default can lead to a cascade of new expenses for appraisals, property inspections and legal work to protect the lender. The lender has all the power and all the fine print.

Her case is an extreme example of what can go wrong. In 12 years, an unbelievable amount of paperwork has accumulated. One document shows that she owes $265,000, a number that keeps increasing. The monthly interest charges range from $100 to more than $1,000, and lump sums of more than $2,500, reflecting property taxes.

Boice is getting some help from the Claremont office of New Hampshire Legal Assistance. They are helping her work through the issue, but it may only come in the form of tax deferment or reductions.

Before taking out a reverse mortgage, seniors should look at all available options. They should also have an attorney review the contract from the reverse mortgage company. One small mistake can end up costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Reference: Union Leader (Feb. 2, 2019) “Silver Linings: Reverse mortgages for seniors–Lifestyle Maintenance or money pit?”

Suggested Key Terms: Reverse Mortgages, Seniors, Interest Rates, Fine Print, Home Equity Conversion Mortgages, HECMs

Moving to a Care Community? Check the Fine Print
Group Of Senior Couples Enjoying Meal Together In an Assisted Living Facility

Moving to a Care Community? Check the Fine Print

Reading the fine print when purchasing a home in a retirement community or a care community is intimidating. The typeface is tiny, you’ve got boxes to pack and movers to schedule and, well, you know the rest. What most people do, is hope for the best and sign. However, that can lead to trouble, advises Delco Times in the article “Planning Ahead: Moving to a care community? Read the agreement.”

If you don’t want to read the fine print or can’t make head or tails of what you are reading, one option is to ask your estate planning attorney to do so. Without someone reading through and understanding the contract, you and your family may be in for some unpleasant surprises. Here are some things to consider.

What kind of a community are you moving into? If you are moving to a Continuing Care or Assisted Living Community, your documents will probably have provisions regarding health insurance, entry fees, deposits, a schedule of costs, if you need additional services, fees for moving to a higher level of care and provisions for refunds and estate planning.

When you enter an long-term care facility, nursing home, or Assisted Living facility, you may find yourself signing documents regarding everything from laundry policies, pharmacy choices, financial disclosures and statements of your rights as a resident. Not every document you sign will be critical, but you should understand everything you sign.

If moving into a nursing home that accepts Medicaid, you and your family need to know that nursing homes that accept Medicaid are not permitted to demand payment on admission from either an adult child or a power of attorney from their own funds. However, Pennsylvania does have support provisions regarding children, that are called “filial responsibility.” This should not be a problem, as long as you speak with an elder law attorney who can make sure you have completed the Medicaid application correctly and are in full compliance with all of the requirements.

If your adult children ask you to sign documents and “don’t worry” about what documents are, you may want to sit down with an experienced elder law attorney to review the documents. When someone is not trained to review these documents, they won’t know what red flags to look for.

If someone signs the document who is not the applicant/future resident, that person may become responsible for the costs, depending upon what role you have when you sign: are you a guarantor or indemnitor? That person typically agrees to pay after the applicant/resident’s funds are exhausted. The payments may have to come from their own funds. Sometimes the “responsible party” is simply the person who handles business matters on the applicant’s behalf. You’ll want to be sure that the person signing the papers understands what they are agreeing to.

Almost all agreements will say that the applicant, or the person receiving services, is responsible for payment from their own assets. However, if someone signing the documents is power of attorney, they need to be mindful of what they are signing up for.

If possible, the person who will receive services should be the one who signs any paperwork, but only after a thorough review from an experienced attorney.

Reference: Delco Times (Feb. 5, 20-19) “Planning Ahead: Moving to a care community? Read the agreement”

Timing Is Everything Where Medicare’s Concerned
Timing is Everything

Timing Is Everything Where Medicare’s Concerned

There are many complex rules about transitioning from employment-based health care coverage to Medicare, and mistakes are expensive and often, permanent. That’s the message from a recent article in The New York Times titled “If You Do Medicare Sign-Up Wrong, It Will Cost You.”

Tony Farrell did all the right things — he did the research and made what seemed like good decisions. However, he still got tripped up, and now pays a penalty in higher costs that cannot be undone. When he turned 65 four years ago, he was still working and covered by his employer’s group insurance plan. He decided to stay with his employer’s plan and did not enroll in Medicare. Four months later, he was laid off and switched his health insurance to Cobra. That’s the “Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act” that allows employees to pay for their own coverage up to 36 months after leaving a job.

Medicare requires you to sign up during a limited window before and after your 65th birthday. If you don’t, there are stiff late-enrollment penalties that continue for as long as you live and potentially long waits for coverage to start. There’s one exception. If you are still employed at age 65, you may remain under your employer’s insurance coverage.

What Mr. Farrell didn’t know, and most people don’t, is that Cobra coverage does not qualify you for that exemption. He didn’t realize this mistake for over a year, when his Cobra coverage ended, and he started doing his homework about Medicare. He will have to pay a late-enrollment penalty equal to 20% of the Part B base premium for the rest of his life. His monthly standard premium increases for Mr. Farrell from $135.50 to $162.60.

There are several pitfalls like this and very few early warnings. Moving from Affordable Care Act coverage to Medicare is also complex. There are also issues if you have a Health Savings Account, in conjunction with high-deductible employer insurance.

Here are some of the most common situations:

Still employed at 65? You and your spouse may delay enrollment in Medicare. However, remember, Cobra does not count. You still need to sign up for Medicare.

If you have a Health Savings Account (HSA), note that HSAs can accept contributions only from people enrolled in high deductible plans, and Medicare does not meet that definition. You have to stop making any contributions to the HSA, although you can continue to make withdrawals. Watch the timing here: Medicare Part A coverage is retroactive for six months for enrollees, who qualify during those months. For them, HSA contributions must stop six months before their Medicare effective date, in order to avoid tax penalties.

There are many other nuances that become problematic in switching from employer insurance to Medicare. If this sounds complicated, at least you are not alone. Moving to Medicare from other types of insurance is seen as complicated, even by the experts. The only government warning about any of this comes in the form of a very brief notice at the very end of the annual Social Security Administration statement of benefits.

There are advocacy groups working on legislation that would require the federal government to notify people approaching eligibility about enrollment rules and how Medicare works with other types of insurance. The legislation was introduced in Congress last year – the Beneficiary Enrollment Notification and Eligibility Simplification Act — and will be reintroduced this year.

Reference: The New York Times (Feb. 3, 2019) “If You Do Medicare Sign-Up Wrong, It Will Cost You”

How Do I Prepare my Parents for Alzheimer’s?
Concerned aged mother and adult daughter discuss updating their estate planning documents and explore their options with regards to Alzheimer's

How Do I Prepare my Parents for Alzheimer’s?

Can your mom just sell her house, despite her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s?

The (Bryan TX) Eagle reports in the recent article “MENTAL CLARITY: Shining a light on the capacity to sign Texas documents” that the concept of “mental capacity” is complicated. There’s considerable confusion about incapacity. The article explains that different legal documents have a different degree of required capacity. The bar for signing a Power of Attorney, a Warranty Deed, a Contract, a Divorce Decree, or a Settlement Agreement is a little lower than for signing a Will. The individual signing legal documents must be capable of understanding and appreciating what he or she is signing, as well as the effect of the document.

The answer the question of whether the mom can sign the deed to her house over to the buyer.  is likely “yes.” She must understand that she’s selling her house, and that, once the document is signed, the house will belong to someone else. A terminal diagnosis or a neurodegenerative disease doesn’t automatically mean that an individual can’t sign legal documents. A case-by-case assessment is required to see if the document will be valid.

The fact that a person is unable to write his or her name doesn’t mean they lack capacity. If a senior can’t sign her name (possibly due to tremors or neurodegeneration), she can sign with an “X”. She could place her hand on top of someone else’s and allow the other person to sign her name. If this is completed before witnesses and the notary, that would be legal.

A hard part of Alzheimer’s is that a person’s mental clarity can come and go. Capacity can be fluid in the progress of a neurodegenerative or other terminal disease. Because of this, the best time to sign critical documents is sooner rather than later. No one can say the “window of capacity” will remain open for a certain amount of time.

Some signs should prompt you to move more quickly. These include things like the following:

  • Short-term memory loss;
  • Personality changes (e.g., unusual anger);
  • Confusing up or forgetting common-usage words and names; and
  • Disorientation and changes in depth perception.

Any of the signs above could be caused by Alzheimer’s, dementia, or many other problems. Talk to your, or your parent’s, physician and an elder law attorney. He or she can discuss the options, document your parent’s legal capacity, and get the right documents drafted quickly. Your elder law attorney can also give you information about planning for long term care options to consider and can help you understand the costs associated with long term care.