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Don’t wait to get your ‘life planning’ documents in order

Alicia Colombo

By Jay Nachman

If you wait too long, it’s too late. That’s the advice of Karen C. Buck when it comes to finalizing your life planning documents, such as wills, advance directives and powers of attorney.

“We call it life planning, not estate planning, because we encourage everyone, particularly older people, to be thinking about planning for their lives, their financial well-being, their health care and their decision making, especially when they’re able to make their own decisions,” said Buck, executive director at the SeniorLAW Center in Center City.

The nonprofit SeniorLAW Center serves about 10,000 people a year with a variety of programs and services, Buck said. Its services are free; the center focuses on the most vulnerable and low-income older adults, those in the greatest economic and social need. Its PA SeniorLAW HelpLine services of legal advice and information, however, are open to all Pennsylvanians 60 and older of all income levels.

There are four documents, a quartet Buck called them, that older adults need to be concerned with. They are:
• Health care power of attorney.
• Durable/financial power of attorney.
• Living will, which outlines end-of-life decisions.
• Last will and testament, which is about distribution of possessions after death.

“We want to choose people to help us with those decisions and choose our priorities while we are able to and it’s not an emergency. So that’s the idea of advanced planning. We plan in advance when things are calm and when we’re well so that when we are not, and things are an emergency, we’re not scrambling to make those decisions,” Buck said.

Buck also advises those who are working on their life planning documents to seek out legal counsel if possible. Using the wrong terminology or not conforming to ever-changing state laws can deem documents invalid, she said.

It’s important, too, Buck said, to look at this planning through the lenses of racial justice and community preservation and as a poverty fighting tool.

“Homes are the primary asset for older adults that are passed on to selected loved ones and that we look at for stabilizing communities, fighting poverty and preventing homelessness. Advance planning can be a tool for all of those things,” she said. “This is also a way to ensure that generational wealth is passed on to the next generation, particularly in terms of housing for older people.”

The loss of homes, or the possible loss of homes, through what she called “tangled titles,” is something that Kathy Ochroch has worked on as a partner and director of pro bono services at the Blank Rome law firm.

What typically happens, Ochroch said, are situations where someone is living in their parents’ or their grandparents’ home, which is what was intended. But it was never left to them properly because it was never properly probated for them.

“Philadelphia has a very high percentage of people who own their homes but who are still low-income. Often they think that they don’t need to have these documents. But the truth is, we have a terrible problem with tangled titles, homes that are not being passed properly to the next generation.

“By doing these documents properly and making sure that someone’s wishes are known and followed through upon, we can make sure that these properties, which are still valuable to families, are passed properly to the next generation as the homeowner wishes them to be.”

Ochroch also recommends preparing a financial power of attorney document. Sometimes, an older adult will need help with writing checks for bills. Adding a family member or friend’s name to your checking account for the purpose of bill payment is unsafe and ill advised, because it doesn’t create a fiduciary relationship. Instead, it gives that person co-ownership of the account and access to all the money in it. With a financial power of attorney, your designated person can write checks only for your benefit. There are more protections in place through a power of attorney with an agent as opposed to what some might consider the easier way of adding the person’s name to a bank account.

Getting your affairs in order with the proper life planning documents empowers you to make decisions for yourself and gives you the peace of mind to know that your wishes will be carried out.

For more information about SeniorLAW Center programs and services, go to or call the PA SeniorLAW HelpLine at 1-877-727-7529.

Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.

Give your family peace of mind

By Alicia M. Colombo, Milestones editor

The topics for Milestones articles are planned weeks to months in advance, with the intent to provide our readers with vital information and resources to help improve their lives. When I assigned this story about life planning documents, I could never have imagined the great relevance it would have on my own life.

Weeks later, my father had a stroke. Dad was rushed to the hospital, where he underwent a series of tests and procedures. The outlook was very bleak. We waited and prayed for three agonizing days, but there was no improvement. We knew that dad would not want to be kept alive on machines. He had signed a living will years ago that told us what to do. It was incredibly difficult, but it was dad’s decision. All extraordinary measures were stopped and dad passed away peacefully a few hours later, surrounded by his loving family.

Dad would have been 82 this month. He was a very thoughtful and caring man, who always did what he could to help others. Perhaps, the greatest gift he gave his family was the peace of mind to fulfill his last wishes with dignity and respect.

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