Are there early signs of dementia?

I should start off by saying clearly that I am neither a doctor nor a trained medical professional. I’m an estate planning and elder law attorney with a background in science and an interest in reading about dementia. That being said, I also learn daily from my elder clients regarding their own lives, the signs of mental decline as they experience it, and their personal observations about the status of their spouse or other loved ones.

As sad as it may be, it’s all too often that people have not done the proper legal planning in advance of the dementia reaching a level where the individual can no longer sign any legal documents expressing their wishes. The issues then come to the surface. Who do they want to handle their affairs? How do they want their assets handled while they’re still living? How do they want their assets distributed after their death?

How is it that so many families find themselves in the position of having an elder with dementia, and not having the right plan put in place? I often hear that the elder was “coping” okay, and nobody wanted to have the difficult conversation that “maybe it’s time we do something.” Many times, a person will notice signs of early dementia in themselves or their spouse or parent, and then take action. At other times, people hide from the reality and hope it will go away.

I have had many cases where one spouse, or an adult child, comes to me and says that their spouse or parent was “doing okay” so nobody was too worried, and then they suddenly took a rapid and dramatic decline into severe dementia. It happens.

None of us know how dementia will affect a given individual, or what the timeline will be between noticing the first signs and reaching a point where the person refuses to sign any documents or simply does not have the mental capacity to sign. Don’t let this happen to you or a close friend or loved one. Be proactive and do some advance planning to protect the individual and the family.



Will Your Legal Documents Work When You Need Them? San Jose Estate Planning Attorney

People frequently bring me their existing Wills, Trusts, and Durable Power of Attorney documents for me to review and make sure that the documents will serve the intended purpose when the person needs to rely upon those documents. But, in many cases, the documents simply won’t meet the needs or desires of the person who signed them.

A local man died recently and two of his children came to see me with his Will that said the house went to the two of them, and nothing to the third child because, “Dad knew she was evil.” Really? I questioned whether the court would accept the Will that they showed me because it didn’t meet the California requirements for a valid Will. The Will had only one squiggled signature of a witness without the person’s printed name or address. There’s no way to validate who that witness was, but the two of them kept repeating that it didn’t matter because the Will was notarized. Well, in California we don’t notarize Wills. Valid Wills in California require the signatures of two witnesses that can be validated. Will the court ever accept that Will? Not likely. How many thousands of dollars will the three adult children spend fighting over it in court?

In another recent case, I had a brother and sister come to me shortly after their mother’s death, and they presented me with her Trust and four amendments to the Trust. Their mother had just died a week earlier at 99 years old, and they wanted to move ahead with the administration of the Trust. They seemed very knowledgeable about the contents of the Trust and informed me that, “Mom’s biological children get 60%, and her step-kids get 40%.” Really? That’s what it said in the second and third amendments, but the fourth amendment dropped that special language and also omitted a gift of $50,000 to the mother’s closest friend. The son and daughter were stunned. The daughter had been present when Mom signed the fourth amendment with her attorney the year before, but apparently the attorney forgot to carry through on Mom’s longstanding wish, and nobody took the time to read the one short paragraph that dropped Mom’s wishes that had been consistent for 10 or 15 years prior to signing the fourth amendment.

The end result of the attorney’s error on Mom’s fourth amendment was that her son and daughter would now each get $260,000 less than Mom had long intended. Although the key paragraph was only three or four sentences long, and it was intended that the wording be the same as on the prior two amendments, nobody took the time to read that paragraph and understand the meaning. Expensive mistake.

Another common problem that I see is when a surviving spouse comes to see me 5 or 10 years after the first spouse died, and they’re shocked to find out that they don’t have full control over all of the couple’s assets. They signed the documents years ago and never fully understood the documents they had signed.

Don’t let this happen in your family. First, make sure that you have the proper legal documents in place, and that each document is valid. Second, make sure that you understand what your documents say, and that the documents accurately reflect your wishes. Don’t leave it until it’s too late. Get your legal documents in order now.


Estate Planning Attorney – Why do people wait so long?

As an attorney who practices elder law and estate planning, I frequently see people who have waited so long to act that they have lost opportunities to get things done right. Many times the ability to preserve the full amount of assets has been lost, sometimes assets have been lost due to elder financial abuse and scams, and sometimes laws have changed which block opportunities that existed earlier. In the worst cases, the elder is unable to sign any documents at all due to a major stroke or dementia.

What prompts people to suddenly act in a rush? Sometimes it’s the death of someone near to them. I once had a client who desperately needed to get his affairs in order within three days. Why? He was leaving on a trip. I still didn’t understand. Well, his father had died. Was that the motivation? The client admitted that his father had died ten years ago and he had really been trying to come in and get everything done ever since then, but the years rolled by and then suddenly his younger brother died the week before he came to see me. That scared him into action.

Getting the proper documents in place is part one. Part two is making sure that the documents are up to date for what you need. Are your documents up to date? Does your living trust consider the new tax laws?

The durable power of attorney is generally considered to be one of the most powerful documents in your estate planning package, but I frequently see powers of attorney written years ago that specifically prohibit us from doing what we need to do now to protect the elder and their assets. Needs change with time, and many documents that work for younger people aren’t what should be used for seniors.

Take care of yourself and your family. Make sure you have the right legal documents in place.

Don’t delay!