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Aging & Geriatrics - Getting Your Affairs in Order
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Getting Your Affairs in Order

Eighty-year-old Louise who lives alone fell in her kitchen one evening and broke her hip. She spent one week in the hospital. After 2 months in an assisted living facility, she returned to her apartment. Her son lives one hundred miles away, but was able to take over paying her bills and handling the Medicare questions.

Seventy-five-year-old Ben has been married for 50 years and has always handled all the family matters involving money. He suffered a stroke one afternoon. He cannot walk; his speech is very slurred. His wife is feeling overwhelmed. She is worried about his health and has no idea what bills need to be paid and when. She doesn’t even know where Ben’s life insurance policy is.

Plan For the Future

No one plans on being sick or disabled. The difference between these two families is that Louise had gathered together all papers related to her spending, savings, investments, and insurance in her desk. She had told her son where they were. In addition, she put her son’s name on her checking account, so that he could write checks for her. She also gave Medicare permission to discuss her insurance claims with her son.

Ben was always prompt and accurate paying the couple’s bills, but never showed his wife how to do it. His life insurance policy is in a box in the closet, along with the car title and deed to the house. Information on their savings is in a drawer in his dresser. He knows where they are, but no one else does.

We all need to prepare for the uncertainties of the future. Making decisions and arrangements before they are needed simplifies caring for an older person or planning for your own old age. Complete personal and financial records will have most of the details you need to plan for any changes that might come up in the years ahead—such as retirement, a move, or a death in the family.

The first step is to assemble as much information as possible about you and your income and savings. A trusted family member or friend should know where you keep all these records and documents, including your will. It is not necessary to tell them what’s in your will, but they should know where you keep it. If you don’t have a relative or friend you trust, ask a lawyer to help. One day, you might need help managing your money or be unable to make important decisions. Helping you is much simpler for the person who steps in if all your papers are already in order.

Everyone’s life history is different. So are their income, savings, debts, and investments. Still, some general suggestions may help you begin to organize your important papers. You might wish to set up a file, assemble everything in a desk or dresser drawer, or just list the information and the location of documents in a notebook. Review these records regularly to make sure they are up-to-date.

Personal Records

Personal records are facts, dates, names, and documents that are part of your history. A personal records file should include the following information:

  • Full legal name
  • Social Security number
  • Legal residence
  • Date and place of birth
  • Names and addresses of spouse and children (or location of death certificate if any are deceased)
  • Location of “living will” or other advance directive if one exists
  • Location of birth certificate and certificates of marriage, divorce, and citizenship
  • List of employers and dates of employment
  • Education and military records
  • Religious affiliation, name of church or synagogue, and names of clergy
  • Memberships in organizations and awards received
  • Names and addresses of close friends, relatives, doctors, and lawyers or financial advisors
  • Requests, preferences, or prearrangements for burial.

Financial Records

A financial records file is a place to list information about insurance policies, bank accounts, deeds, investments, and other valuables. Here are some suggestions:

  • Sources of income and assets (pension funds, IRA’s, 401K’s, interest income, etc.)
  • Social Security and Medicare information
  • Investment income (stocks, bonds, property, and any brokers’ names and addresses)
  • Insurance information (life, health, and property) with policy numbers and agents’ names
  • Bank account numbers (checking, savings, and credit union)
  • Location of safe deposit boxes
  • Copy of most recent income tax return
  • Liabilities - what is owed to whom and when payments are due
  • Mortgages and debts - how and when paid
  • Location of deed of trust and car title
  • Credit card and charge account names and numbers
  • Property taxes
  • Location of all personal items such as jewelry or family treasures.

Sometimes the person helping you may have questions about a bill or a health insurance claim. They may need to talk directly with the people involved. The law does not allow this without your consent. You might consider giving permission to Medicare, a credit card company, or your bank, for example, to discuss your affairs with this person. Sometimes this can be done over the telephone. Sometimes the company has a form for you to sign and return.

Legal Documents

When people think of legal documents associated with aging, they probably think of a will. A will is your chance to say who should receive the things you own. Another way to do that is a trust. Sometimes, before death, older people need other legal documents. Perhaps, someone has to take over an older person’s affairs. A standard power of attorney or a durable power of attorney can give one person the right to handle personal or financial matters for another. A standard power of attorney is not useful, however, if the person being cared for cannot make their own decisions. A durable power of attorney may be a better choice because it is effective even if a person becomes unable to make decisions for himself.

Another type of document, an advance directive, describes in writing what your wishes about health care are in case you become terminally ill. Advance directives such as a living will or durable power of attorney for health care can help avoid family conflict. They make it easier for family members facing hard health care decisions on a relative’s behalf. For example, your aunt may not wish to have her life extended by being placed on a ventilator or breathing machine, or your brother may want to be an organ donor. An advance directive can provide for this. They are recognized in most, but not all, states.

Because state laws vary, check with your area office on aging, a lawyer, or financial planner. They will have information on wills, trusts, estates, inheritance taxes, insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid.


Talk to a lawyer before setting up a power of attorney, durable power of attorney, joint account, trust, or guardianship. Be sure to ask about the cost before visiting a lawyer. Your local library may have a directory of local lawyers.

Free legal and financial services are often available to help older people and their families. Contact your local agency on aging or one of the following organizations:

National Association of Area Agencies on Aging
1112 Sixteenth Street, NW, Suite 100
Washington, DC 20036

National Association of State Units on Aging
1225 Eye Street, NW, Suite 725
Washington, DC 20005

The National Institute on Aging has information on health and aging.

National Institute on Aging
Information Center
PO Box 8057
Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8057
800-225-4225 (TTY)

National Institute on Aging
U. S. Department of Health and Human Services
National Institutes of Health

This publication sourced from the National Institute on Aging.