Introduction/Overview: Everyone thinks of their attorney, and probably their insurance agent, when thinking of estate planning. We've always advocated a team approach with all advisers. You can't plan well if your investment adviser and CPA aren't involved. But for many families more is needed. In many instances, a Social Worker or similar professional can be a key partner in the estate planning team.
√ Question: What role might a Social Worker play in an estate plan?
√ Answer: The most obvious, which is growing in importance, is using an independent Social Worker or geriatric consultant to evaluate the needs of a particular person. For example, if you have an elderly parent, having a geriatric consultant complete an assessment advising as to care needs, and other vital matters, can be essential. This can help assure a loved one the best care, use scarce resources properly and, to the best advantage of your loved one, inform you of programs that might help that you were not aware of, etc.
√ Question: With the aging population, the incidences of what is called "elder abuse" and, in particular, "elder financial abuse" are rising. Is there a role the Social Worker can play to help protect against these risks?
√ Answer: Certainly. If the Social Worker meets the elderly or ill loved one in their home or wherever the live, they often can pick up on signs of a range of different issues that a meeting in a lawyer's office or at an investment advisers office will never indicate. This can be one of the most important steps to protect a loved one.
√ Question: Who should be used? If the family member has a Social Worker, should they create the report since they are familiar with the person involved?
√ Answer: That is possible, but in a lot of situations the independence can be valuable. There are situations when the current people involved in the care program miss an issue. Sometimes there are gaps in coverage or care. Having an independent fresh eye on the matter can often be helpful. If this is not practical from a cost or logistical perspective than certainly current people can be used.
√ Question: Many children live at a great distance cross country from an elderly parent. How does this idea apply to them?
√ Answer: If I were a child living in California and had an ailing elderly parent in New York, I would get a lot of comfort of knowing an independent Social Worker with no ties to any institution or medical provider serving my parent were doing an independent evaluation and sending it directly to me without current caregivers filtering it. This is a great tool in this type of situation.
√ Question: Are there any legal steps to consider in making this happen?
√ Answer: Absolutely. While a loved one may be able to orchestrate this with no advanced planning, taking proactive planning steps can be a huge help. A power of attorney should expressly authorize the agent to hire a Social Worker and obtain such a report. It might even require it periodically. A living will or health proxy may instead authorize the health care agent to handled this which might be a better choice. Then, the power of attorney could direct the financial agent to pay for the Social Worker hired by the health care agent. Similar provisions can be built into a living trust as well. If an institution is involved as a trustee, this is a great way for the family to assure that they are really giving the attention to the matter. Many families are fractionalized, and disputes too often erupt over the care of an elderly parent or other family member. Sometimes the arguments are over care, sometimes over cost. Having a written care plan prepared by an independent consultant may avoid these issues. Finally, a HIPAA release authorizing access to medical records may be essential to this process.
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