Caring for an Elderly Relative or Widowed Parent: Where to Begin

Legal and financial matters to consider when caring for an elderly relative or widowed parent.

Updated by , Attorney · University of Arkansas School of Law

As Americans live increasingly longer lives, many require ongoing, long-term care. This care often falls to grown children in their forties, fifties, and sixties who are busy with careers or perhaps children of their own. Getting caught in this care-giving "sandwich"—growing children on one side, aging parents on the other—can be an emotional and financial burden, especially if you don't know where to begin or how to get help.

If you are, or soon will be, caring for an elderly parent, you'll need to consider some legal and financial matters. It may be necessary to deal with care facilities, insurance, powers of attorney, and more. Here's where to start.

Figuring Out What Needs to Be Done

Following is a checklist to help you determine what your relative, widowed mother, or elderly friend may need. Don't let it overwhelm you. Simply use it to make your own list of things to do or to learn more about, if necessary. Then you'll be in a better position to ask others to help with both discrete and long-term tasks.

Type of Care Needed

To determine the types of care your relative may require, ask yourself these questions:

  • What kind of care does my relative need now, and is that likely to change in the future?
  • Could my relative be taken care of at home with some help from a skilled nurse and/or a health aide?
  • Would assisted living be appropriate for my relative?
  • Will my relative require a skilled nursing facility, now or in the future?
  • Does my relative's mental condition require him or her to have special care and housing?

Health Insurance and Medicare

The following questions will help you understand what kind of health care coverage your loved one has or may need:

Taking Over Decisions

The time may come when you or other loved ones need to make basic financial and health care decisions for your relative. Be sure to get answers to these questions:

  • Does my relative have a living will (advance health care directive) or power of attorney for finances? If not, how can I help my relative create the necessary documents? (For more information, see Helping an Elder Make a Power of Attorney.)
  • Is my loved one no longer capable of making his or her own decisions or consenting to a power of attorney? (For help, see Conservatorships and Adult Guardianships.)

End-of-Life Issues

Here are some important issues to consider about wills and other arrangements at the end of life:

  • Does my relative have a will or trust? If not, how can I help my relative create a legally binding will (read about simple wills) or a trust (read our FAQ on living trusts).
  • Has my loved one communicated any wishes for final ceremonies and the disposition of his or her body? (For help, see Planning Your Funeral or Memorial Service.)
  • Has my relative shared information on where to find important documents and passwords regarding bank accounts, retirement accounts, safe deposit boxes, stocks, life insurance policies, and wills and trusts? (For help, see Nolo's article Practical Estate Planning: Organize Your Documents.)

Helping a Widowed Parent With Finances

If a parent has passed and your mother or father needs help managing finances, dealing with online accounts, and so on, you'll need to get organized. Here's a checklist for taking over a widowed parent's finances, or simply to help your parent get organized

1. Find and document assets.
Be sure that your surviving parent knows where important assets are located. Often, just one spouse manages most of a couple's finances. You'll find it helpful to make a master list of bank and brokerage accounts, retirement plans, insurance policies, real estate, items in safe deposit boxes, and other significant assets. Make note of sizable debts as well.

2. Collect insurance and Social Security benefits.
Find out whether your surviving parent is the beneficiary of a life insurance policy and, if so, contact the insurance company and file a claim for benefits. This is one of the first things you can do to ensure there's enough cash on hand. Helping your parent apply for Social Security benefits should be next on your list of things to do. In addition, investigate other benefits to which your parent may be entitled, including pension, veterans, or other employment-related payouts. (Read about claiming life insurance and Social Security benefits.)

3. Change title to jointly owned assets.
If your parents owned property together—as joint tenants or in another form of joint ownership—the surviving parent should change the title document to show that the property is now owned alone. This will make it easier for your surviving parent to manage the property—and for you to wrap up your surviving parent's affairs when the time comes. Check title documents for real estate, vehicles, bank or brokerage accounts, and other significant assets to see whether you need to update ownership records.

4. Take steps to avoid probate court.
When changing title documents and reviewing your surviving parent's estate plan, you should consider whether any part of the estate will be subject to probate. Simple probate avoidance methods could save a bundle of time and money—for example, your parent might name payable-on-death beneficiaries for bank or brokerage accounts that used to be jointly owned.

5. Update will and trusts.
Losing a mate often causes widows and widowers to reevaluate their own plans for leaving property at death. If your surviving parent has a will or living trust, they should review it and change it, if necessary, to reflect their current life circumstances and wishes. Also check to see who your parent has named as beneficiaries for retirement plans, bank accounts, and any other major assets that will pass outside the will or trust.

7. Update insurance policies.
If your deceased parent is still named as a beneficiary on insurance policies, those policies will need to be modified, cashed out, or canceled, depending on your parent's current needs and wishes.

8. Make a health care directive (living will).
If your parent hasn't already prepared a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care, now is the time. These important documents will allow your parent to set out health care wishes and name a trusted person—perhaps you—to oversee their care and make medical decisions if that ever becomes necessary. Making health care documents can also open the door to discussing your parent's feelings about organ donation, burial or cremation, and other final arrangements. For more information, see Helping an Elder Make a Power of Attorney.

9. Make a financial power of attorney.
This document lets your parent name someone to handle financial matters—from writing monthly checks to managing investments—if they ever become incapacitated and unable to take care of things alone. Without this document in hand, you or other loved ones would most likely have to go to court to get the necessary authority. For more information, see Helping an Elder Make a Power of Attorney.

10. Organize documents.
A world of careful planning won't do any good if you can't find important paperwork when you need it. Do what you can to help your mom or dad set up a good filing system. Here are some critical things to keep track of:

  • will, trust, and other estate planning documents
  • powers of attorney
  • bank and brokerage account statements
  • retirement plan statements
  • government benefit paperwork
  • insurance policies
  • business records
  • tax returns
  • credit card and debt information
  • secured places, such as a safe or safe deposit box
  • email accounts and passwords, and
  • property records for real estate, cars, and other major assets.

Getting Help

After you've reviewed the checklists above and have an idea of the tasks and issues involved, take a deep breath and remember that you can ask for help. To begin, you can encourage your relative to be as involved as possible in their care. Avoid taking control of tasks that your loved one can still perform. The more seniors are allowed to do, the longer they'll be able to maintain a sense of ownership over the course of their own lives.

Next, you can turn to others for assistance, such as your immediate family and friends, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles—anyone who might be able to lend a hand. (In many families, siblings divide the responsibilities of parent care.) Often, delegating even a small task can mean a great deal, especially if it relieves you from something on your to-do list.

You can also turn to professional resources, such as in-home health aides and elder companions. Of course, most of these services cost money, though some are covered under some health insurance plans or Medicaid.

Caring for an elderly relative or a widowed parent is not easy, and you deserve all of the support you can get. During the hard times, it might help to remember that what you are doing is noble and generous. Whether or not your loved one is able to express it, they are fortunate to have someone who is willing and able to do the job you've taken on.

Helpful Resources

These resources can help you with the tasks described in this checklist:

Get It Together: Organize Your Records So Your Family Won't Have To, by Melanie Cullen with Shae Irving (Nolo), is a complete system for gathering and storing important documents, plans, and wishes. From wills to insurance policies to passwords, it lets you pull all your important records together in an easy-to-use format.

The Executor's Guide: Settling a Love One's Estate or Trust, by Mary Randolph (Nolo), offers extensive legal and practical guidance to help you wrap up the affairs of a loved one who has died. It also explains the steps executors can take before someone dies, to help them get property and paperwork in order.

Eight Ways to Avoid Probate, by Mary Randolph, discusses the strategies you can use to keep property from ending up in probate court after a loved one's death.

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