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Aging Alone? 5 Financial and Legal Tips You Should Consider

Aging alone doesn’t necessarily mean an older adult is isolated and lonely. There are numerous seniors who enjoy the solo status—they make decisions on their own without consulting anyone, they can take a trip whenever they fancy, they eat whatever and whenever they want, or they skip a routine to fit their mood. However, the most satisfied solo agers are those who are well prepared, which includes planning for financial and legal matters to come.

Who Are “Solo Agers”?

Generally, a solo ager is a community-dwelling individual who is socially and physically isolated and has no known family members nearby or designated surrogate. Other monikers that apply to the group are “single seniors,” “elder orphans,” “aging alone” and “patients without surrogates.” Solo agers are all around because a greater number of Americans live alone, according to newly released estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau's annual America's Families and Living Arrangements, 2021.  

Although aging alone is not unique, the term “solo ager” is popular with singles because they prefer to be looked upon as capable, independent and competent. While the family unit—a wife, a husband and two children—has been the status quo for decades, increasingly, those in the 55-and-older group are single, widowed or divorced. Furthermore, they’re child-free, or the adult children live far away, leaving the senior to fend for themselves. Even married couples who have no children frequently identify with the term.

What Legal and Financial Considerations Are Important for Those Aging Alone?

When family is not available, financial and legal matters can be unsettling due to the complexities of finding trustworthy people to help. And because solo agers do not have a default caregiver, planning requires intention and critical thinking. In addition, it’s unreasonable to apply a “one-size-fits-all” strategy. The toughest decisions are centered on these questions: “Who will stand in for me and make decisions on my behalf if I am unable?” and “Who will keep an eye out on my finances when I am incapable?” The roles of executor and proxy are time intensive for months after a solo ager’s death, and family and friends may not be the most suited for those roles.

Here are a few suggestions to help be better prepared for successful aging as a solo ager.

1
Assess Whether You Want To Appoint Family or Friends

Habitually, when selecting an agent for legal and financial decisions, family and friends are the go-to choice. But before asking family or friends to fulfill this critical obligation, ask if they have time for the responsibility. It’s important to be clear about what you’re asking of them. In all fairness, the roles can be complex and require skills, knowledge and experience. It is not a position to be taken lightly.

Here are some important questions to ask when considering friends or family to be an executor or a financial or health care proxy:

  1. Do they have time?
  2. Will they outlive you?
  3. Do they have a strong character to insist that the health care team follow your wishes?
  4. Do they know how to manage investments?
  5. Are they familiar with valuing and selling or transferring property?
  6. Do they have experience with paying debts and liquidating assets?
  7. Do they know how to manage cash flow needs?
  8. Will you compensate them?
2
Hire a Pro

Hiring a professional executor and trustee may make the most sense because it takes a very organized and detail-oriented person to handle an estate. Pros have the systems in place and relationships with the courts and bankers. Plus, they are trained in law, accounting and/or business. Professionals will handle it all: itemizing assets and debts, going over the will and locating beneficiaries, filing paperwork for probate, and getting everything in order so the process will run smoothly. Of course, they do it all for a fee.

Considerations when hiring a pro:

  • Do not hire the first estate attorney you interview. Make sure the one you hire is someone you trust and respect. Get references.
  • Ask about fees. How will they be compensated? Do they charge by the hour or a flat fee?
  • Learn the process. Will you work with a team of people or the estate attorney? If it is a team, meet each person. Paralegals can play a significant role, so talk with them as well.
3
Consider an Estate Planning Team

Estate planning teams are growing in popularity as an option for single seniors. It may require more time and coordination, but having a team of friends, family and professionals to support you will cover all bases. For example, the team could include a friend or family member (or both), a financial adviser, a fiduciary or money manager, and a care manager or patient advocate. Together, each contributes their expertise to the plan. But it’s critical that you, as the single senior, be the focal point and have the majority say. A team approach to estate planning will offer a holistic approach to the traditional estate planning strategy.

4
Have a Checklist of Legal and Other Directives

Having health directives in place ensures your preferences are followed when it comes to medical situations in which you are unable to make decisions yourself. The documents also express your wishes to your family so they don’t have to guess during what could be a very difficult and stressful situation. The most common directives are a living will, health care proxy, organ and tissue donation, and funeral directions.

  • A living will is your written instructions of how you want to be treated in certain medical situations. It could involve your wish to withhold life-extending treatments such as CPR, a mechanical respirator, intravenous or tube feeding, a blood transfusion, dialysis, and antibiotics. According to the American Bar Association, all 50 states permit you to express your wishes regarding medical treatment in terminal illness or injury situations, and to appoint someone to communicate for you in the event you cannot communicate for yourself.
  • A health care proxy is a durable power of attorney that specifically names the person you choose to carry out your wishes and make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re unable. To prepare a health care proxy:
  1. Write out your wishes.
  2. Make a list of trusted peers—preferably younger individuals who live nearby and trusted family members.
  3. Ask each person if they are willing to take this responsibility.
  4. Interview those who agreed and give them the Proxy Quiz written by the American Bar Association. Also, download the Guide for Health Care Proxies.

Your lawyer can help prepare these documents, and you should also make sure your family is aware of them. It is a good idea to provide copies to your regular physician and take them with you in the event you are admitted to a hospital.

5
Have a Financial Power of Attorney or Revocable Living Trust

Once you reach a certain age, you need to plan for a time when you may be more vulnerable. Maybe now you’re very secure and independent, but over time that could change. There are default state laws and court processes to take care of seniors who did not plan, but generally speaking, you should avoid having strangers who are not professionals control your life, health and money.

You may be encouraged to select a financial power of attorney to oversee your money. But for solo agers, they are better served with a solid revocable living trust which offers more flexibility and privacy. It holds ownership of your assets. The revocable living trust is the best shield against elder abuse. Check with an elder law attorney about which financial planning tool best fits your needs.

No matter what your specific legal, financial and health situations are, communicating your wishes is important. Even though you might want to keep your legal documents private, you should discuss your wishes with others including your family or any friends who are a big part of your life. Your physician should also be aware and place copies of your documents in your file. As difficult as these topics can be, your family and friends will be relieved that they won’t have to make these decisions for you during very emotional and stressful times.

For further reading, here are some financial and legal resources:

Health Care Planning

Giving Someone a Power of Attorney for Your Health Care
Tool Kit for Health Care Advance Planning
MedlinePlus Advance Directives

Legal Planning

Living Wills, Health Care Proxies and Advance Health Care Directives
Estate Planning Power of Attorney
Estate Planning Revocable Trusts

How Right at Home Can Help

Right at Home offers in-home care and assistance such as light housekeeping, help with meals and hygiene, medication reminders, or providing transportation to medical and other appointments when family or friends are not available. Right at Home caregivers can even take notes for family members who are unable to attend appointments. Our five-step approach to care ensures your wishes are followed and your specific care plan gives you the support you need. Download our Adult Caregiving Guide for additional resources, or use our location finder to obtain the phone number of the office nearest you.

Carol Marak, Author, Webinar Presenter
Carol Marak, author of “SOLO AND SMART: The Roadmap for a Supportive and Secure Future,” is a former family caregiver and an avid writer and advocate for the solo community. Carol lives alone and has created a safe and confident lifestyle. She plans to continue to thrive well into her 90s. Follow her work at carolmarak.com.
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