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Proper legal documents important for loved ones

Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders columnist

Dear Carol: As my parents aged, we all thought that we were taking care of the legal issues necessary so that I, as Durable Power Of Attorney (DPOA) could handle anything that came along with their finances.

Dad died two years ago, and Mom and I got through it. Now, Mom's health is failing. She wanted me to change the account where her Social Security is deposited, so I called and found out that the DPOA would not allow me to do that. Fortunately, Mom's memory is still good, so she was able to go to the attorney with me and she had me assigned as Representative Payee.

The attorney told us that if Mom had a health issue where she couldn't have answered the questions needed, I wouldn't have been able to make the necessary changes. For us, that would have been merely inconvenient, but some people could have more important reasons for making these changes. Your column seemed to be the best way that I could think of to get the message out. Thanks for providing a great service. Janice

Dear Janice: Thank you for your kind words about the column. As happens from time to time, you, the reader, need to be credited with highlighting important issues and I thank you.

I want to stress that seeing an attorney for these documents is important. That is the best way to make certain that you have all necessary documents and that they will be recognized as legal.

States vary in their specific requirements and people's personal situations differ. However, I can discuss some general requirements.

One necessary document, of course, is the Durable Power of Attorney, which you had up front. Any person who will be in charge of financial issues for another adult needs to be assigned this duty in a legal DPOA. Having a DPOA, as opposed to a simple POA, gives them the right to take over finances even when the person who assigned it is no longer capable of doing so themselves. With families, this is generally the reason we obtain the documents.

Just as important as the financial papers is the DPOA for health care, often called a health directive. This may contain what is often referred to as a living will, which tells health providers and family members how a person would like their health treatment to move forward should they be in a situation where they can no longer provide input. However, the health directive also allows the person to sign hospital and nursing home forms and carry out other responsibilities.

People often have the better known legal papers taken care of, along with a will. What they frequently don't have is the assignment as a Representative Payee. As you found out, this form is necessary to make changes for Social Security and Medicare. Many people will never need to use this document, but it's good to be fully covered.

Thanks again for your letter about this critical topic, Janice.

Carol Bradley Bursack is the author of a support book on caregiving and runs a website supporting caregivers at She can be reached at