Essential Legal & Financial Paperwork

A stack of bills and legal paperwork

The night before his surgery, my Dad sat with his laptop and gave me an overview of my parents’ financial assets and a bunch of other practical information about paying insurance premiums, credit card bills, and more. Despite obtaining this information, it was still daunting to realize a few days later that I was now in charge of everything. After the surgery and the stroke, my Dad was no longer able to handle his affairs.

Even with a bit of a head start, it was still a project to gather all the information I needed and to gain permission to handle my parents’ affairs. If you find yourself unexpectedly in charge, here is a list of legal, benefit, financial, and security information to round up. Even if you aren’t in crisis mode, you may want to find out now where this information resides.

Legal Documents

  • Power of attorney. If you are named as power of attorney, most banks will honor this document and allow you to take action with your parents’ accounts. Be aware, however, that some institutions won’t accept “stale” powers of attorney. “Stale” could be as young as three years old. I encountered this problem – see my Cautionary Tale below...

  • Health care proxy and HIPAA release forms

  • Medical orders for life sustaining treatment (MOLST) forms

  • Trust documents. If accounts are held in the name of a trust, you may not be able to access them using a Power of Attorney document. Instead, you may need to be designated as a trustee.

  • Wills

Benefit Information

  • Social Security number and card

  • Medicare number and card

  • Health insurance policy number (e.g., Medicare supplemental insurance, prescription drug insurance)

  • Long-term care insurance policy number and information

  • For life insurance policies, determine the amount of payout on death, the beneficiaries, and the cash value if cashed in before death

  • If your parent is a Veteran, they may be eligible for VA benefits. Among other things, you will need a copy of his or her military discharge form (known as DD Form 214).

Financial Information

  • Bank account numbers. Which bank account do Social Security payments get deposited into?

  • Which bills need to be paid and how are they paid (e.g., electronically, via check). Think about insurance premiums (health, long-term care, life, home, auto), utilities, property taxes, estimated quarterly Federal and State tax payments, credit cards, etc.

  • Consider creating an inventory of non-retirement assets (e.g., bank accounts, annuities, mutual funds, stocks, etc.) and retirement assets (e.g., IRAs, 401ks, pensions, etc.)

  • Find out if annual required minimum distributions (RMDs) have been taken from IRAs and 401ks. I speak from experience – during the last week of December 2012, I was scrambling to get my parents’ RMDs withdrawn so they wouldn’t incur a penalty.

  • For individual stocks, is there information about the cost basis? You’ll need this for tax purposes, if you sell stocks.

Security Considerations

  • House keys

  • Code to home security alarm

  • Passwords for email, computers, voicemail

  • Safe combinations

  • Firearms. If guns have trigger locks, what are the combinations or where are the keys? If you need to sell firearms and aren’t licensed to carry in your state, find out what the relevant laws are. I had a friend who was licensed to carry accompany me to a gun dealer to sell my Dad’s firearms.

Stale Powers of Attorney: A Cautionary Tale

 Although my parents had Power of Attorney documents, they were over ten years old by the time I found myself in crisis mode. Some banks accepted the documents, but others refused. This was a major problem when I discovered that my parents hadn’t taken the Required Minimum Distributions from their IRA accounts and the credit union wouldn’t accept the Power of Attorney.

 Thanks to recommendations from friends, I found a good elder law attorney. She met with my Mom and me to update my mother’s documents and she came to the rehab facility where my Dad was moved after his surgery to have him sign a new Power of Attorney. If you need help finding an elder law attorney, the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys web site ( may be useful.

 At several points throughout this journey, I’ve found myself in situations where I thought, “You really can’t make this stuff up.” This was a good example. After my Dad’s stroke, he suffered from a “lack of insight” or anosognosia – that is, he never thought that there was anything wrong with him. As you can imagine, he was livid about being in the rehab facility. In his mind, he was perfectly fine. For a brief period of time, Dad shared a room with a man who used to be a lawyer. On the same day that our elder law attorney was coming to have Dad sign the updated paperwork, the roommate’s family decided to move him out of the rehab. The roommate crowed to my Dad on his way out the door, “I’m getting out of here and I’ll get you out of here too.”

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