Interviewer: So we can go ahead and get onto talking, today, about advanced planning and making some smart financial and planning decisions as people enter late adulthood. Sheri, I wonder if you could briefly introduce yourself and tell us a little about where your expertise lies.
Sheri: Certainly, my name is Sheri Samotin and I am the founder of LifeBridge Solutions, which is a business focused on helping older adults and the people who love them, mostly their adult children, deal with the business of life. Our expertise is in the area of life transition coaching, helping people plan for their futures of where and how they want to age and be cared for and how they’re going to pay for that, as well as daily money management. Which is all of the day to day, managing the mail, paying the bills, dealing with Medicare and insurances and all of the paper monster.
Then finally, I serve as a professional fiduciary and a registered professional guardian.
Interviewer: OK. Let’s talk specifically about fiduciary services. Can you describe what they are and why it’s so important to think about guardianship and power of attorney and those things as people age/
Sheri: Certainly, fiduciary services in a nutshell are all of the roles that are played when you cannot handle things for yourself. You may not be able to handle things for yourself temporarily. For example, let’s say you’ve had an illness or an injury and you have to have surgery and you’re hospitalized. That may be just a temporary thing or you may be traveling or in the military. So there are lots of reasons why you may need a fiduciary even when you’re well and younger and all of that.
But generally, it’s when people become incapacitated either physically or, more often, cognitively, and can no longer handle their own affairs. Or once you’ve passed away. So there’s a couple of different kinds of fiduciary, the first is a durable power of attorney. This is someone who steps into your shows as your agent for financial and business matters.
The second is your healthcare surrogate, or in some states, called your healthcare proxy or healthcare power of attorney. This is the person that you name who can make healthcare decisions on your behalf if you can’t.
Next is, if you have a trust, so if part of your estate plan is that you’ve established a trust, you generally will be the trustee while you’re alive and able to do so. But then you have to name a successor trustee and that successor trustee, then, is a type of fiduciary.
Then there’s a personal representative or executor of your estate. So once you pass away, in your will, you name someone. Again, this depends on the state whether it’s called an executor or a personal representative, they’re interchangeable. But that’s the person who has to settle your estate and is responsible, legally, for wrapping up your affairs.
Those are the types of fiduciaries you can name while you are living and have capacity.
If you don’t do that, so if you don’t name anyone or you name people who can’t serve or who pass away before you or won’t serve or whatever ‑‑ in other words, if you enter a situation where you either haven’t named anyone or you’ve named people who can’t or won’t serve, then you require a guardian. In some states that’s called a conservator.
If it’s dealing with your assets, it’s a conservator and if it’s your person, it’s a guardian. In other states it’s called a guardian of the person or guardian of the property. Again, it’s very similar and that is a court‑appointed position where you can name something called a pre‑need guardian.
So you could say, “If all else fails, here’s who I’d want to be my guardian.” But most often guardians come into play for people who haven’t planned ahead and named those other things that I just mentioned.
Interviewer: So you actually are a registered guardian within the State of Florida.
Interviewer: So you would step in at the time that somebody else would not be available. You would be, then, named by the state, is that true?
Sheri: It’s actually named by the court and that’s the court in our circuit, in our county. So it’s a local thing where I’m, what’s called “court appointed” as the guardian.
Interviewer: At that point, maybe, steps have not been taken by a person. There’s not been a lot of preplanning, which is maybe why we circle back around to why it is so important to think about these things before you reach that point.
Sheri: Right. In my view it’s critically important to do so, because you get to be the decision maker. For example, when you do plan ahead and you select whether it’s family members as your fiduciary or somebody who’s a professional fiduciary, such as myself, or what’s called a corporate fiduciary, which may be a bank trust company, in any of those cases, when you plan ahead and you name those people in your estate planning documents, you actually get to talk to those people, whoever it is you’ve named. What I do with my clients is I prepare my clients because put together something called a life transition plan where we gather all of their important information in one place, not only the things you’d expect like their account numbers and their passwords and things like that, but also things like if they have a pet. Who takes care of the pet if they can’t? What happens to the pet if they’re no longer here to care for the pet?
So we get into details well beyond simply the factual thing with the accounts, which would be obvious. But when you plan ahead you have the opportunity to do that and to pull all that together. Even more importantly, to have the important, but often very difficult, conversations about where and how you want to live and where and how you want to die.
Because the people you’re appointing as your fiduciary very well may be those who will be making, in the end, those decisions on your behalf. The more we can use what is called “The Doctrine of Substituted Judgment,” which means I’m stepping into your shoes and doing what you would have done in the situation, that’s always better than the doctrine of best interests, which is me trying to say what I think is in your best interest.
Interviewer: Right. What is it that you think keeps people from planning ahead and how can people overcome that?
Sheri: Most people don’t plan ahead because of denial. We all like to think we’re going to live forever. Especially, the younger we are, the less we want to think about any of this. But honestly, the people who really must do the most planning are the people who don’t think anything’s going to happen to them. So younger people with young kids, it’s very sad when those people don’t plan and then there’s a tragedy, a car accident, or something like that, and they’ve done no planning. Because then the courts get involved and the last thing you want is courts making decisions about your kids.
Sheri: So everybody should plan. But I think the main reason people don’t is denial and fear and procrastination. We’d all rather be out doing whatever it is we like to do. It’s an arduous process. It’s not an especially pleasant conversation to contemplate ones own demise. But it’s a certainty and that’s what I tell clients. Really, the position I take is it’s the very best gift you can give your family.
Interviewer: So for a family just exploring these issues, do you have any other advice or guidance about either handling affairs on their own or seeking professional services?
Sheri: The most important thing is to do it. I care less about how it’s done than that you do it. So what are the things you need to do? Number one, you need to consult with an attorney who specializes in end of life matters. So somebody who is a specialist in wills, estates, trusts and so on, and have the proper documents prepared which conform to the statutes in the state in which you live. A huge mistake I see people make is either not doing documents at all or going online to one of the many services or going to the office supply store and buying forms and thinking that their situation is simple and therefore that’s all they need and, well, they’ll save a few bucks by doing it themselves.
I’ve seen that and it’s a huge mistake, because people’s situations are very often not as simple as they think they are. So that’s what the first thing is, consult with an attorney who knows what they’re doing, pay the money, and have your documents done properly.
Then, keep them up to date. If there’s a major change in your life or in the statute in the state or if you move to a different state, you need to have those documents reviewed and potentially updated.
The second thing you can do is do what I call the life transition planner, but another way to think about it is an owner’s manual for your life, and pull everything together into one place. If you can do it yourself, that’s awesome, most people can’t. Most people start with good intentions and get about a sixth of a way through it and it goes in the drawer.
But, do it yourself, do it with a buddy, do it with a professional. I don’t care, just do it.
Interviewer: That’s great advice. Thank you. Sheri, thank you so much for your time today, for sharing some really good information with assisted living today, listeners and readers. I really appreciate your time.
Sheri: Thank you so much.
Transcription by CastingWords