I met with a family this week that reinforced how difficult it can be when a parent is failing. The parent, their father, was a Vietnam War Veteran. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and, according to the family, was “rated 80% disabled.” The family believed this anecdotally. They had never seen an award letter or any other document from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Unfortunately, their father also had developed dementia. His version of dementia was not only memory loss but mood swings to include paranoia and anger. He also was young, only 69 years old. He hated the idea of being disabled or dependent on others so sought adventures to escape the reality of his illness. Though still married, he simply moved to Missouri to live with his daughter who was scheduled to transfer to an Army base in Germany. Another adventure to him; a burden to his daughter.
Now suffering from dementia and PTSD, he was a horrible spend-thrift. Though he had shockingly high income, he had not saved any money for a rainy day. His wife was left in Washington with low income and no assets. He had essentially escaped to other parts of the world with high income.
To make things more difficult, he had never executed a Power of Attorney let alone a Last Will and Testament.
The question the family asked was a simple one: what can we do to pay for our father’s care at the same time protect our mother’s retirement years since she is not currently ill and only in her sixties?
In law school, our professors constantly gave us “hypothetical” fact patterns. Bizarre situations that we were to parse and identify, at a minimum, “issues.” Issues are just questions that, with luck, the law can answer. The story this family told me is as difficult as any make believe fact pattern a law professor could make up. Worse, it was tragic because it was not made up; it was real and involved suffering.
The first issue was obvious: did the father have capacity to make health care and financial decisions or himself let alone his wife? In an ideal situation, we would all simply sign a Power of Attorney, a simple document that gives the authority to a trusted family member to make decisions for us. Powers of Attorney are inexpensive and painless to obtain. Without them, the only option is a guardianship. A guardianship is court procedure in which a Superior Court Judge finds that the “ward” lack capacity and appoints another person, in some cases a complete stranger, to act as the person who has legal authority to manage the ward’s money and place the ward in a care community, etc.
In subsequent articles, I will explain in more detail guardianships and how they work in Washington State.