How To Help Your Parents Get Their Affairs In Order

If both your parents are still living, count yourself fortunate. Give each of them an extra hug or phone call. Now imagine yourself walking into their home after a car crash that killed one and left the other in unconscious and critical condition.

You’re sad, in shock and lonely. Now—where is the will? A medical directive? The life insurance? Power of attorney? Papers related to their pensions and retirement accounts? The checkbook? Funeral wishes? Where to begin?

“Document-organizing always seems to be on folks’ C list— things that should be done and that you’re going to get around to one of these days,” says Margaret Mondul of Household Documents Organization in Williamsburg. When you consider taking care of your aging parents, don’t limit the discussion to their physical needs. Helping your parents get their financial, legal and personal affairs in order is a gift you can give to them—and yourself.

That gift starts giving when someone is still functioning and active, keeps giving when a stroke or other illness suddenly changes life forever and continues to give after you pass away.

“If your papers are not in order—this applies to everybody—there are missed opportunities,” Mondul says “You didn’t get to go on the cruise because you couldn’t find your passport. You wasted money on fees because you didn’t pay your bills. You lose assets because you lost track of a bank account or insurance policy. Those are just day-to-day examples of what happens when you can’t put your hands on documents in a timely manner.”

The stakes go up even higher if a parent or loved one is incapacitated.

“People think, ‘My daughter will take care of me’ or ‘My son will come from California and take care of me,’” Mondul says.

“But they don’t have the authorization to do those things. You could have decisions made for you by people who don't know you.”

You’ll need a medical directive to know your parents’ wishes regarding life support. You’ll need a power of attorney and other documents to make critical decisions.

“These documents have to be put in place ahead of time,” Mondul says. “They cannot be put in place after the fact except very expensively.

After a parent or loved one dies, the consequences of not being organized go to another level. Time is one factor.
“If [survivors] can’t put their hands on certain documents, there’s a lot of wasted time,” Mondul says. “I know a number of people who spent two to three years settling estates” because key documents were not readily available. Another consideration is making sure your loved one’s wishes are followed for the funeral, burial and disposal of sentimental items. Then your family has to guess what you want,” Mondul says.

“I’ve had clients two years after their mother died, practically with tears in their eyes, saying ‘We had my mother cremated and to this day I don’t know that’s what she wanted.’ The child is still suffering.”

Or, survivors may learn that someone wanted to be buried or have ashes scattered in a certain place ... when it’s too late, Mondul says. “It’s an emotional concern,” she says.

Organizing is more than filing, she says. “A lot of people have a document, they throw it in a file folder and they think they’re done,” she says. “The organization process is actually identifying the documents that need to be organized, reviewing them, summarizing them and then securely filing them.”

Mondul has a list of more than 85 documents including life insurance, medical directives and power of attorney. She asks each client: “Do you have one of these documents” and “Do you know where it is?”

The next step is to determine whether the information is up to date. Benefi ciaries on documents may be incomplete or completely wrong, she says. “As your lives change, your documents have to change with them,” she says. Since 9-11, some documents that previously were accepted at government agencies now are not, Mondul says. “Certificates from the hospital that say ‘registration of live birth’ are no longer available. Marriage certifi cates ... signed by the minister are no longer accepted by Medicare.”

Depending on where the wedding took place, those documents need to come from an issuing government agency such as a health department, department of vital statistics or the local courthouse, Mondul says.

Mondul tells a story about an elderly friend of hers who ignored Mondul’s advice. The friend had been drawing Social Security based on her own work record. When her husband of 54 years passed away, the friend was eligible for Social Security at a higher amount based on his work record. But she needed her marriage certifi cate, which she didn’t have. “She called me in absolute hysterics and said ‘No one has ever asked to see my marriage certificate,’” Mondul recalls.

Eventually, with the help of someone who lived in the area where the wedding took place, Mondul’s friend was able to get a copy of her marriage certifi cate. But in the meantime, the friend’s benefits based on her own work history stopped. She did eventually get the back payments. But “for almost two months, she wasn’t getting any
Social Security,” Mondul says.

Survivors may also miss out on receiving other benefi ts because documents aren’t easily accessible. One example is a life insurance policy that’s paid up so that a bill no longer arrives monthly or annually, Mondul says. Or someone may have a forgotten bank account from another state.

That unclaimed money adds up to $32 billion across the country, she says. All of those documents should be in a waterproof, fireproof portable safe, Mondul says. “This is where FEMA and other organizations recommend you keep your critical documents—not in a bank box,” she says. “Banks are not accessible 24-7. Emergencies always happen on Saturday night.”

Finally, once you organize your parents’ documents—it’s time to sit down and follow the same process with your own paperwork. Warning: you may get some pushback from your spouse. “If I’m dealing with a couple, often one of them thinks I’m not needed,” Mondul says. “The person who does most of the filing knows where everything is—or thinks they do—while the other party has no idea and is feeling very nervous.”

Widows and widowers who have already gone through the process once—perhaps without being organized—usually are very receptive, she says.

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