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Talk While You Can

Brian White

THIS PAST SPRING, my brother Phil made the six-hour trip from our hometown in North Carolina to northern Virginia to visit our 95-year-old aunt, whom we know as Aunt Ina Lou. We hadn’t heard from her in a while, which was unusual.

Since we were children, she’d always sent us Christmas and birthday cards, and she’d missed some recently. Phil tried calling several times, but she hadn’t been answering her phone. This wasn’t particularly surprising since our aunt is almost deaf. Though he wasn’t overly concerned, Phil decided to go see her.

When he arrived, he learned that Aunt Ina Lou was no longer leaving her house or paying her bills. He spoke to some of her neighbors. He found out that one of her much younger neighbors had been writing checks for her to sign, and also buying and delivering her groceries. Other neighbors had been doing her laundry and helping out as much as they could.

Fortunately, they’re honest. Our aunt had practically all her substantial savings in her checking account, so they could have cleaned her out. Her young neighbors were concerned because she clearly needed more help than they could provide. They hadn’t known how to contact any relatives, and Aunt Ina Lou was unable to tell them because of her declining mental faculties.

Phil set about trying to organize our aunt’s bills, which were stashed in a variety of places throughout her house. She had saved years of bills, and organizing them was a monumental task.

I’m a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) tax preparer, so I offered to do her taxes. On a later visit, Phil brought back what records he could find, and I prepared her 2021 taxes. Most of her tax records were kept in the same place, but the last tax returns Phil found were from 2018. On further checking, I verified that she hadn’t done her federal or state taxes in 2019 or 2020.

Phil went back for yet another visit—to go through more of her records and because Aunt Ina Lou’s health seemed to be declining. On this trip, he noticed a large notebook labeled “estate planning documents” squirreled away in one of her rooms. He discovered that in 2015 she’d set up a trust, naming me as the trustee. She’d also listed me as her agent in her financial and medical powers of attorney, and as the executor of her estate.

She had neglected to mention any of this to me.

Aunt Ina Lou never married and has no children. I’m one of her five nephews and nieces, and we’re her nearest living relatives. I had no idea she would name me for all these duties, though—in retrospect—I was a logical choice. The other nephew and the two nieces live in Florida, and I went to business school and have management experience.

Once I learned I’d been named as her agent, I realized I had to take charge of the situation. I consulted over Zoom with a lawyer from the firm that prepared her estate planning documents, and then went to visit Aunt Ina Lou with my brother. Phil noted that her health had declined even more.

Once I saw her, it was clear to me that she required home health care immediately, and she needed to be in an assisted living facility as soon as possible. Using Google, I found an accredited home health provider in the area and arranged for someone to be there with her part-time.

Shortly thereafter, she fell and broke her wrist during the night, when no caregiver was present, so I shifted to 24/7 care. Fortunately, there’s a good assisted living facility near where she lived. Phil and I visited it in July, and we liked it. We took Aunt Ina Lou for her first COVID-19 vaccine, and made arrangements for her to move into assisted living in August.

I ordered an electric hospital bed for her room that was delivered shortly before she moved in. With the help of my wife Sara, and with Phil and his large truck, the three of us moved a selection of her furniture and belongings into her new studio apartment. We set up her room with lots of familiar furnishings.

She’s doing well in her new home, getting the care she needs, and she seems to have adjusted pretty well to the change. I just wish we had been able to get her into assisted living sooner. She spent a lot of time at home alone, not getting the level of care she needed, and living in needless discomfort. Without the assistance of her young neighbors, she likely would have died, as she was beyond being able to ask for help.

The whole process of taking control of my aunt’s finances and moving her into assisted living ended up being a tremendous amount of work for Phil and me. I spent seemingly endless hours getting access to her financial accounts, consolidating accounts, setting up automatic payments for her bills and getting everything in place for her move.

Practically everyone I dealt with needed to have a copy of her power of attorney designation and then have it approved by their legal department. Further, we had to do everything as quickly as possible because our aunt’s mental and physical health had declined so much by the time I learned I was named as her agent.

Had she told me, I would have kept in closer touch, and also given my contact information to her friendly neighbors and someone from her church. Aunt Ina Lou could have been a lot more comfortable and received proper medical care these last few years. All it would have taken was a note in one of those Christmas or birthday cards.

It was great that she had the powers of attorney drawn up, and the trust will make dealing with her estate in Virginia much simpler. But her case is a prime example of why you need to make sure the person you’ve chosen is willing and able to handle your affairs, and also will check back regularly to determine if that becomes necessary. It’s best to notify your designated agent while you still have your wits about you.

If you have elderly relatives, talk to them sooner rather than later about setting up a financial power of attorney, a medical power of attorney and a will. Urge them to speak to whomever they have chosen to fulfill these duties. It’s far better to know ahead of time that someone is depending on you—rather than to discover your role in the midst of a crisis.

Brian White is retired from the University of North Carolina, where he worked as a systems programmer and then director of information technology in the computer science department. He likes hiking with his wife in a nearby forest, dancing to rocking blues music, camping with friends and stamp collecting. He also enjoys doing Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) work at the Chapel Hill senior center. Check out Brian’s earlier articles.

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