One Quick Test To See If A Loved One Is Losing Capacity

In the course of us helping people with their estate plans, one issue that we find that can come up is the question of capacity. Is any person involved in this estate plan losing the capacity to make decisions properly for themselves? Do they really understand what is going on?

The problem is that as people lose capacity, they are very good at hiding it.

Little jokes, annoyed denials, push back, turning the tables, and graceful changes in conversation are all part of the repertoire. Also, being forgetful, or other symptoms people want to associate with aging, are just not a good or reliable indication of losing capacity. Too many people are overly distracted, multi-tasking, lack proper sleep, medicated, or eat poorly, all of which can seem like something more serious, but aren’t the serious issue we are talking about here.

Experts say these are some signs to look out for:

  • memory loss
  • difficulty concentrating
  • finding it hard to carry out familiar daily tasks
  • struggling to follow a conversation or find the right word
  • being confused about time and place
  • mood changes

The only problem is that list seems to describe everyone I know in 2020 under lockdown!

We have heard stories of people losing capacity who start to exhibit poor hygiene, and having dressing and clothing issues. But the one indicator of capacity issues I look for that concerns me the most is slipping financial hygiene. Are the bills being paid promptly and correctly? Are payments being sent to the right address? If you see new difficulty with numbers and/or handling of money, like frustration getting correct change while shopping, it is a huge, waving red flag.

Unlike other things in life, where the person can assert that the issue is of perspective or “that’s your opinion,” or just an unprovable accusation, the beauty of bills and numbers is that they are important, undeniable, and adjudicated by a third party, so no one can claim that the issue is “just your opinion.” Bills and finances are important, and no one can deny that they were ignored because “they don’t matter,” or deny that something is not right. It’s there in black and white.

This week I had a client tell me that he just found out his father’s home was up for tax sale at a forced auction in a few days for unpaid taxes! How could this happen? Now, the father has money, assets, and income, and was always scrupulous throughout his life about finances and being in control. So what happened? He is intelligent, physically active, still running a business, but almost ninety years old with diabetes, and losing capacity.

He still has a rich life, but what he doesn’t have is the capacity to handle his finances any more.

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual story.

If you have doubts about a loved one’s capacity, take the time to poke around or ask about the status of their finances, offer to help with bills. You could even check public tax records to verify their home is up-to-date in their taxes. How do they handle things now? Are the utility bills current? If you see a change from what was normal, it is not smoke, but a small fire that needs to be acted on before it rages out of control.

With estate planning and basically all things involved with the legal and financial aspects of a person’s life, once a person loses capacity everything changes and becomes ten times harder, stressful, and more expensive.

That is why getting those documents in order beforehand is so important! It is so much easier for everyone. It is much better to know the reality of a situation and deal with the messy underbrush now, to prevent a wildfire, than to have to deal with the damage and danger after things get completely out of control.

Contact us  if we can help you.



PS: Not surprisingly, this story was in the news the day after I wrote this email:

Elderly New Jersey homeowner nearly loses home — over 6 cents in back taxes