Peace of Mind: Elderly Turning to Power of Attorney

By Theresa Tighe Of the Post-Dispatch | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), August 5, 1994 | Go to article overview

Peace of Mind: Elderly Turning to Power of Attorney


Theresa Tighe Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


All of her life, Edmonia Stith, 71, of St. Louis, has managed to care for herself and her children.

So this year, soon after learning that she had Alzheimer's disease, Stith gave her daughter the legal right to handle finances for her. She had already given her daughter the ability to make health care decisions.

Legally, these powers are called durable powers of attorney for finances and health care.

Stith's daughter, Delores Stith-Rutlin, also of St. Louis, calls them peace of mind.

Stith-Rutlin said they will allow her to use her mother's money on care rather than legal fees.

Lawyers say that for lack of durable powers of attorney, hundreds of mentally or physically disabled elderly people end up in court each year for guardian or conservator hearings.

In Missouri, a guardian makes decisions about personal matters such as health care and residence for a person, and a conservator handles a person's finances. In Illinois, the term guardian can include personal or financial matters or both.

Lawyers say it's unfortunate that some older people don't draw up powers of attorney because they:

Cost less than going through court hearings to get guardianships and conservatorships. In Missouri and Illinois, lawyers will draw up a power of attorney for less than $300. Legal costs and court fees for a guardianship and conservatorship run at least $1,500 to $2,000.

Take less time than going to court. Lawyers can draw one up in a day or so. Guardianship and conservatorship procedures take at least a month, often much longer.

Protect a family's privacy. In a court hearing, a person's finances and medical history become public record. If the person puts the power of attorney in the hands of someone who doesn't gossip, financial and medical facts are kept private.

Sitting down and discussing financial and health matters and granting a power of attorney does cut down on trips to court.

Larry O. Brockman, a lawyer in Swansea in St. Clair County, said that since his clients have been planning ahead and using durable powers of attorney, he has cut the number of guardianship hearings he handles to two a year from about 24.

Sometimes when a family feuds, the case of a person who drew up a power of attorney ends up in court, said Daniel Roddy, a lawyer with offices in Clayton. In those cases, the power of attorney serves as a guide to the person's wishes.

But there is a catch to powers of attorney. Only the mentally competent can grant them.

So attorneys and social workers in both Missouri and Illinois recommend that all older people, not just those who are ill, grant these powers to someone they trust.

Attorneys in Missouri and Illinois said people can fill out their own powers of attorney for health care. Nursing homes and hospitals distribute those forms to patients.

In Missouri, durable powers of attorney for health care must be notarized and witnessed. In Illinois, they need only be witnessed, said Brockman.

People should make several copies of the power of attorney for health care. They should keep one, give one to the person they grant the power of attorney, give one to their doctor and keep a spare or two on hand in case of a hospital stay.

When it comes to a power of attorney for finances, lawyers in Missouri and Illinois said that a lawyer should draw up the document.

In both states, powers of attorney for finances must list the specific powers a person is granting. Usually these include:

Writing checks.

Signing state and federal tax forms.

Opening a safe-deposit box. …

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