Senior Care Blog Wayland and Weston

Elder Law and Estate Planning Best Practices Q&A with Tiffany O’Connell, Principle of O’Connell Law

By Denise Roskamp

Tiffany is the principal of O’Connell Law LLC. We sat down with Tiff recently in her comfortable, home-like office in Natick, MA to learn more about her firm’s practice areas, key challenges and best practices.

Can you tell us about your Law practice areas?

We focus on estate planning, elder law, Medicaid and veterans benefits planning, trust and probate administration, business succession planning, charitable planning, and retirement and wealth strategies. In essence, we help people plan for the future, cope during times of crisis, and find answers to difficult questions related to asset distribution, incapacitation instructions, MassHealth assistance and more.

Can you speak about your Elder Law practice area in particular?

There are many financial, medical, and legal issues that come with growing older. Our aim in this practice area is to help our clients plan in advance for the possibility of incapacity and the need for long-term care, as well as help cope with what we call a Medicaid Crisis situation.

What is a Medicaid crisis situation?

Medicaid is the largest provider of financial assistance for nursing home residents in the United States. (In Massachusetts, Medicaid is known as MassHealth.) Given the cost of long-term care, when financial assistance from MassHealth is denied and a member of the family must enter a nursing home immediately, it precipitates a financial crisis for most families. We call this situation a Medicaid Crisis.

Laws governing eligibility are complicated and change from one year to the next. We understand these laws and how to help our clients get the care they need without exhausting their life savings.

What about estate planning; is it really needed for everyone?

Some people believe that estate planning is only for the wealthiest of families. The truth is, virtually everyone can benefit from having an estate plan of their own. Without your own plan, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will control how your assets are distributed after you pass away – which may not follow your wishes.

How can you prevent that from happening?

With the right legal documents in place and appropriate beneficiary designations, you control who gets what and how. Without these in place, probate (the court) will need to get involved and that could be costly and delay the process.

What advice do you have for seniors and their grown children?

It’s important to make sure there is a game plan and that everyone knows what the game plan is. It’s also easier for the families all around if there is open communication and transparency. However, it doesn’t work for all families. Ideally, the kids should know what legal documents are in place and where they are located. A central location is best to hold all key documents (such as passports, wills, tax returns, etc.).

Unfortunately, we sometimes see that by the time the kids are involved the situation moves into crisis mode. By planning in advance, and with communication and transparency, families can avoid this type of situation.

What must-have documents should people have in place?

At a minimum, people should have a “Power of Attorney” and a “Health Care Proxy” signed and in place. Sometimes, these documents already exist, but as I mention, the kids don’t know where they are. It’s important to ask the questions and keep the communication lines open.

What other questions should adult kids be asking their parents?

In addition to asking what legal documents are in place and where they are located, they should ask about their parents’ wishes if they get sick – for example, do they want to stay at home or live in an assisted living facility. They should, while it can be sensitive, ask about their parent’s plans when passing – what kind of service, burial/cremation the prefer.

What’s a key misunderstanding you see as part of your practice?

Correct titling and beneficiary designation is a concept we find many people are not aware of. With wrong or inconsistent designations, probate could get involved and unintended beneficiaries could receive assets. It’s important to make sure your property is titled properly and consistently to take optimal advantage of ones Will and/or Trust.

What other key recommendations do you have?

Start the discussion early and keep wishes and documents as open as possible with your family. Also, make sure any documents stay updated (every 3-5 years). Clients should touch base after a significant life event, like a change in job or living situation.

And, as I said earlier, it’s important there is a game plan, and everyone knows what the game plan is. When that’s possible we remove the worry from the equation, giving our clients and their loved ones a greater piece of mind.

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