Mary was a waitress at the local diner. Sam was a young, athletic kid who had just enlisted in the Army.
He still remembers Mary’s pink dress, her hazel eyes, the smell of bold coffee and the sound of bacon sizzling on the grill. He was shy, but by the time Sam was done eating his eggs he got up the nerve to ask her to a Halloween party. She said “Yes”.
When he picked her up in his father’s 1947 Chevy Fleetmaster, Mary strolled to the door dressed like a princess (“She was a princess”, he says). Sam was decked out in his finest black suit and his father’s fedora tilted to the left, trying to do his best impersonation of Al Capone.
Their courtship was interrupted by Sam’s service in the Korean War but, as Sam says, “I’m a lucky man, she waited for me”.
Over four years. In an era with no cell phones and no instant media, Mary waited by the phone and ran to the door every time the doorbell rang, hoping for the best, but ready for the worst.
Then Sam was home. A whirlwind romance led to a sweltering hot August wedding. Soon they were raising two sons and a daughter and, as Sam puts it, “Life happened”.
That was 57 years ago.
Today, Mary has advanced dementia, which is a progressive brain disease causing memory loss, personality changes and impaired reasoning.
Sam is in my office worried about how to take care of Mary. He is confused by the options. He has heard so many different things from so many different people.
How can I make sure that Mary gets the best care?
Can I get good care for Mary without burning through every last dime of our life savings?
I have been an attorney in Michigan for almost years. My focus is on estate planning and elder law.
It surprises me how many times people ask me “What is an elder law attorney and why do I need one?”
This is always an interesting question. “Elder law” covers a broad area, which includes almost every issue that affects seniors and their families.
Elder law can involve decisions on issues like whether you are better off with a Will or a Living Trust. It can also involve more complicated issues, like advanced planning for long-term care needs or ways to minimize income taxes or estate taxes.
Elder law may involve discussions about how to avoid probate court. It may also deal with your potential incapacity and how your financial and medical decisions will be made if you can’t make those decisions on your own.
You may have children or other beneficiaries who can’t (or shouldn’t) get an inheritance outright. For example, if your son or daughter is in a bad marriage, has creditors or substance abuse problems, you will want to discuss ways to protect their inheritances from themselves, their creditors or their (soon to be) ex-spouses.
You may be dealing with issues relating to selling your home and downsizing, or determining the best way to get the most out of the sale of your business.
In Sam’s and Mary’s case, Sam is worried about how to get the best care for Mary and not lose the life savings they both worked so hard to build.
Sam and I will talk about having Mary assessed by a professional to make sure we understand all of the care options. We will talk to Sam about potential Veterans benefits that may be available for care, whether Mary stays at home or is in need of more care in an assisted living community.
If Mary needs skilled nursing care, we will talk about options where Sam and Mary can protect most, if not all, of their life savings by using available government benefits. Like many clients, Sam asks:
“Don’t I have to spend all of our money to get governmental benefits?” The answer is “No”.
“Won’t the government come and take my house later on if we use governmental benefits?” Again, the answer is “No”.
Elder law is different than many legal areas because we focus on the person and the family. We don’t focus on the legal issues in a vacuum. There is so much confusion and misunderstanding about the issues surrounding seniors and their families, it just makes sense to talk to an elder law attorney before making any of these important decisions.
Mary is sitting in my office nursing a cup of black coffee from a mug, wearing a pink dress far different than the one she wore the day she met Sam. It is wrinkled and stained with traces of this morning’s breakfast. Coffee leaks over the edge of the mug onto Mary’s dress. Sam patiently dabs a napkin on the spill, brushes Mary’s hair out of her eyes, and adjusts her bifocals. Mary’s hazel eyes are empty, she seems not to notice.
“Mary, it’s me,” Sam says softly, his voice cracking. “Squeeze my hand if you know who I am.” Mary’s eyes are still, her head doesn’t move. But I can see the back of her frail hand tense as she presses ever so slightly on Sam’s hand, while at the same time a tear leaks from Sam’s eye, and a faint smile creases his weathered face.