Seniors at the Sulphur Senior Center, on Tuesday, learned of free legal services available to them through the Acadiana Legal Service Corporation.
The private, non-profit law firm, provides assistance in civil cases to seniors and others unable to afford it in a 44-parish service area.
Marsha Montgomery, staff attorney for the ALSC, explained legal tools available to them to address end-of-life issues such as Advanced Medical Directives, or living wills; wills, succession, different powers of attorney.
She told the seniors that the ALSC will draw up all legal documents, as dictated by the client, notarize them, and keep a copy of them for 10 years, at no cost. The service is made possible, locally, through a grant from the Calcasieu Council on Aging.
Montgomery recommended that seniors have the following documents legally prepared:
• Advanced Directives
Also known as a living will, this is a notarized legal document that dictates to family and medical staff what medical care should be given. Directives include Do Not Resuscitate orders, and for how long life-support equipment is used. “Without a living will, someone else is going to have to get with the doctor and make a difficult decision,” said Montgomery. She said living wills help alleviate family conflict. “It places a lot of guilt on your family, to have to decide,” she said. “Maybe one child says, ‘Mama wouldn’t have wanted to live like this,’ and another child wants to keep her alive indefinitely an in a coma.
“If you want to make your wishes know and respected by the doctor, it’s best to put it down in writing.”
Montgomery said without a will to clearly indicate how possessions should be distributed, families often fight. “You may as well set up a boxing ring,” she said. “You’d be surprised what people fight over.” She recommends listing each item of value, sentimental or otherwise, and where exactly it should go. One point Montgomery reiterated is that children are not entitled to inheritance. “That’s your money,” she said. “As long as you are of sound mind, don’t have children under the age of 23 or with permanent disabilities, you can do anything you want with your will.”
There are two types of wills: Notarial, which is notarized with witnesses or Olographic, which is handwritten. Montgomery said the potential for mistakes, poorly documented amendments, or improper dating make olographic wills easy to contest. “If any part of it is not in your handwriting,” it’s invalid,” she said. “So, to me, that’s dangerous.” A will can also be contested if it is suspected that the writer was under duress when it was made. If there are multiple wills, the one with the most recent date is what is administered.
Montgomery also explained succession. She said it’s a legal process in which the courts take custody of your will, or if you don’t have a will, your estate and officially distributes it. It’s a lengthy, costly process. In Louisiana, there is something called a Small Succession, which she said is a much simpler process. “That’s a notarized form we do with some of your heirs,” she said. The process is available for estates valued at less than $125,000. “It’s easier if you have a will,” she said. Montgomery said with or without a will, land goes to heirs. And while succession isn’t mandatory, Montgomery said, “Your heirs can take possession of your property, but they won’t have good title. So they’ll have to go to court to have the court say they are the owners.” Montgomery said anything involving land has to be in writing and filed with the courthouse. “Otherwise, they’ll own it, but they won’t be able to get it insured, they won’t be able to get homestead exemption, they won’t be able to refinance a loan or sell it because it won’t be legally in their name.”
• Act of Donation
One way to get around succession issues is what’s called an Act of Donation, which is legal document drafted and filed by the client prior to death, donating property to someone else. But Montgomery warned that if certain stipulations are not listed in the document, you could find yourself out on the street. She recommended including the legal term Usafruct, which protects your right to continue using the assets you donated for a certain period of time or until the time of your passing. “That’s why it’s good to go through a lawyer for these documents, because we’ll figure out ways to protect you,” she said.
Montgomery said the lack of a will leaves many unmarried elderly women in a bind, upon the passing of a long time partner. She said if a couple lives together, but only one owns the house, upon the homeowner’s passing, the partner can legally be evicted. Louisiana is not Common Law state and long-term partners are not legally protected. “The heirs can cut of utilities and have you out in two weeks,” she said. “It’s very important to have something in writing.”
• Power of Attorney
Montgomery said there are two types of Power of Attorney: Durable and Medical. These powers don’t extend beyond death.
Durable Power of Attorney is a legal, notarized document designating a person to handle all legal and financial affairs. “They can do anything financially that you can do,” she said.
Medical Power of Attorney is a legal, notarized document designating a person to represent your wishes with regard to medical care. “You don’t have to check the box that allows them to put you in a nursing home,” said Montgomery.
Either of these can be granted to anyone, regardless of relationship.
Legal documents should be drawn up appointing someone executor of your estate. This gives the designee the authority to administer your estate. Montgomery suggests naming an alternate executor also. “That’s the person who’s going to get the will, contact a lawyer and process everything for you,” she said.
“It’s good to have an alternate. Choose two people you trust. Your will can be as short as two paragraphs or as long as 10 pages. It’s customizable to your needs.”
Montgomery recommends seniors, particularly those who live alone, keep an envelope labeled with “In Case of My Death” and taped above the front door containing all legal documents, such as an Advanced Medical Directive, Will, Power of Attorney,etc.. The envelope should accompany the senior to the hospital in the event of a medical emergency.
Montgomery urged seniors to contact the ALCS as soon as possible to make use of the free services. She said as it is funded through a grant, there is no guarantee it will be around forever. “It’s very simple, and very worth it,” she said.
To contact the local ALSC call 337-439-0377, email Montgomery at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Lake Charles office at One Lakeshore Drive, Suite 800 in Lake Charles. Other free legal assistance, information, and self help materials can be found at www.louisianalawhelp.org.