As an estate planning & elder law attorney, families often wind up in my office to discuss their concerns that a loved one is showing signs of Alzheimer's or dementia, even before they meet with doctors.

That is not entirely surprising to me. Many of the early clues that a senior is experiencing diminished capacity directly correlate with legal and financial issues. It is often missing money, an impulsive changing of the will, unpaid bills, excessive "sweepstakes" entries, and support of new "charities" that raise alarms for loved ones that perhaps something is not quite right.

A major concern when I meet with these families is, "How do we stop the financial and legal damage while we are working to get a proper diagnosis from a physician." As with most things in life, the answer is: It is complicated.

The best-case scenario occurs when the senior has planned ahead. If he or she has a Power of Attorney (or Living Trust) in place that gives other family members permission to take over legal and financial matters in the event of incapacity, the family has a clear path to quickly and easily seize control.

If the senior had no prior legal planning in place, what can be done depends solely on his or her mental state. If the senior is in the very early stages of Alzheimer's and has significant periods of clarity and lucidity, he or she may still retain the "mental capacity" necessary to sign legal documents and appoint someone else to oversee his or her affairs.

This will ultimately give the family the ability to take back the checkbook, catch up on bills that are behind, stop the odd payments, cut off the telemarketers that are preying on the senior's incapacity, and prevent him or her from changing the will or trust before the situation can spiral out of control.

However, if a doctor and/or attorney determines that the senior no longer has the ability to make sound decisions and understand consequences, no further legal documents can be signed and executed. In this situation, the family will need to petition the court for a Conservatorship (or what we refer to as a "living probate"), which is a costly and lengthy process to legally appoint someone else to oversee the senior's personal and\or financial affairs. You want to avoid this at all costs!

If you are picking up on financial and legal warning signs that an elderly loved one is experiencing even the slightest mental incapacity, time is of the essence. Keep an eye on stacks of mail (and bills!) piling up around the house. If the senior is spending a lot of time on the phone, directly ask if it is a salesperson or "charity" calling. Find out who the senior's lawyer, CPA, financial advisor, etc. are so that you can approach them with concerns and benefit from their guidance and support.

The sooner you can spot signs of a problem and get professional help from doctors and advisors, the sooner you can protect your loved one, take back control, and make the transition into this new phase of life sooner for everyone.

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