Originally published in the Portland Business Journal on March 14, 2016. Co-written with Tracy Morgan, executive director at the Alzheimer’s Association’s Oregon Chapter. 

Since 1982, the Alzheimer’s Association has invested more than $350 million in more than 2,300 scientific investigations.

Thanks to the efforts of the Alzheimer’s Association and its partners, Alzheimer’s disease is now at the forefront of biomedical research, with 90 percent of what we know discovered in the last 20 years. Some of the most remarkable progress has shed light on how Alzheimer’s affects the brain.

Better understanding of the disease’s impact may lead to better treatments, which cannot happen soon enough. Alzheimer’s is the only cause of death in the top ten with no way to prevent, cure or even slow it. Further, one in three seniors will die with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.

As such, caring for this segment of our population is a fact of life for anyone in the financial or legal industry, and it is strongly recommended that an individual with dementia implement a legal plan as soon as possible.

Proper planning includes planning for long-term care and health insurance, making arrangements for finances and property, and naming a key person to make decisions on behalf of the person with dementia.

From a legal perspective, working with a client with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis is tricky. Obviously, an attorney (or any finance professional) must make a judgment call on the client’s ability to understand legal decisions and the consequences of the decision. These judgment calls are not always clear, though.

If the client lacks the capacity to make legal decisions, then the attorney must recognize this and recommend a solution, such as having a conservator established by the court to act on behalf of the client.

Additionally, a medical diagnosis does not necessary mean that the client has lost the ability to understand and appreciate the consequences of his or her actions; until a court legally determines that a person is incapacitated, that person retains all of his or her rights and decision-making abilities–and continues to have the right to make the wrong decision, including the right to refuse assistance, case management, placement, medical treatment and other forms of help.

Further, couples who are not in legally recognized relationships are particularly vulnerable to limitations regarding the ability to make decisions for each other, and they may be unable to obtain information about a partner’s health status if legal documents are not completed.

To plan properly clients should bring the following documents to their initial meeting with their attorney and/or financial adviser:

  • Itemized list of assets (e.g., bank accounts, contents of safe deposit boxes, vehicles, real estate), including current value and the individuals listed as owners, account holders and beneficiaries.
  • Copies of all estate planning documents, including wills, trusts, and powers of attorney.
  • Copies of all deeds to real estate.
  • Copies of recent income tax returns.
  • Life insurance policies and cash values of policies.
  • Health insurance policies or benefit handbooks.
  • Admission agreements to any health care facilities.

Although it’s important for everyone to plan for the future, legal plans are especially vital for a person diagnosed with dementia. The sooner planning begins, the more likely it is that the person with dementia will be able to participate.