Do you need to learn more about older adult legal issues that affect caregivers?
In this section you’ll find an overview of legal documents that may be important in ensuring the legal and financial security of your family member. Also included are tips on storing and accessing completed legal documents and where to find information on obtaining assistance and benefits you may qualify. Please note: this site provides general information and is not intended to be legal or financial advice. Contact and attorney or you local area agency on aging for general assistance and referral to elder law attorneys or legal aid organizations.
Be sure to check out our FAQ page and scroll down to the section titled “Legal” for more information on this topic. Here you will find answers to such questions as:
- What legal documents do I need?
- How can I find a qualified attorney?
What you will learn:
- The basics of an estate plan
- Powers of Attorney, Wills, and Advance Directives
- Trusts & Guardianship
- DNR (Do Not Resuscitate)
- Legal Record Keeping
Topic Quick Links – Click on a topic below to go to that area of the page.
- Financial Power of Attorney
- Medical Power of Attorney
- Designation of Guardian
- Directive to Physician (“Living Will”)
- Out of Hospital Do Not Resuscitate Order (DNR)
- Legal Record Keeping
Financial Power of Attorney (POA)
With a financial power of attorney (POA), a person, known as the “principal” appoints an “agent” to carry out financial and other activities, as instructed by the principal. Often the person designated is the spouse but can also be children, other family members, or others. It is advisable to name a primary agent and an alternate agent. You may choose whether the POA (power of attorney) becomes effective immediately or only in the event of illness/disability. The POA should have language indicating that it is “durable” (remains in effect even after the person is legally incapacitated). A POA may be revoked by the principal. The POA must be notarized; it does not need to be witnessed.
A Medical Power of Attorney allows you to designate an “agent” to make health care decisions when you are unable to make those decisions for yourself. The Medical Power of Attorney is broader in scope than a “Living Will” – it allows your agent to make all medical decisions. You may give specific instructions to provide or withhold certain care or treatment. The document must have two witnesses; it is not notarized. At least one of the witnesses cannot be a relative, anyone that would inherit or take under the creator’s will, the attending physician, anyone that works for the attending physician, or most employees of a health care facility.
Designation of Guardian
The Designation of Guardian allows you to designate the person you want to serve as your Court-appointed Guardian, if necessary. The Designation of Guardian protects your agent under the Power of Attorney. It requires two witnesses and a notary.
The “Living Will” is an advance directive to the physician to withhold life sustaining procedures in the cases of irreversible conditions or terminal illness when the person is not likely to survive. It allows the individual control over end of life decisions. The document must be signed in the presence of two witnesses; no Notary is required. The person creating the “living will” can tell the physician specific kinds of care they want if they become unable to make medical decisions. This directive is used only when the patient is either terminal or has an irreversible condition. Examples of situations that may fit in one of these categories are as follows:
- People who have cancer that has spread
- Chronic kidney failure
- When a lot of help is needed with daily activities
- Severe infections such as pneumonia that require hospitalization.
A person can revoke their “Living Will” at any time by stating it is no longer in effect. The limitations on witnesses are the same as for the Medical Power of Attorney.
It is important to note that laws about advance directives are different in each state so be sure you have the correct form for the state of residence.
An Out of Hospital DNR Order is a type of advance directive that instructs paramedics and other healthcare professionals not to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or other life support measures (except for comfort) in an emergency situation. An out of hospital DNR must have two witnesses and must be signed by the person’s physician. The completed form must be carried or the person must have a special identification bracelet. Some people are now having “DNR” as a tattoo on the chest. A DNR order becomes part of the medical chart.
A standard form is available from hospitals or online from the Texas Department of Health,
A trust is a legal document that designates a person or entity (“Trustee”) to hold legal title to property for the benefit of someone else (“Beneficiary”). A trust can be revocable or irrevocable and covers distribution of income and principal.
Trust beneficiaries consist of:
- An income beneficiary (a person entitled to receive distributions for the Trust during his/her lifetime) or
- A remainder beneficiary (the person who receives the Trust assets when the Trust terminates)
There are two major types of trusts:
- Testamentary Trust – A trust created under a person’s will
- Usually for benefit of minor children or “wayward” child
- “Inter vivos” or Living Trust – A trust created by someone during his or her lifetime; usually revocable
- The creator of the trust is usually the initial trustee and primary beneficiary
- Successor trustee is ultimate beneficiary
- Useful for managing assets of incapacitated individuals
- The trust, not the individual, owns the assets, therefore assets are not subject to probate
- May avoid claim for Medicaid reimbursement against homestead
- Should also have a “pour over” will, which provides all assets pass under the terms of the living trust.
- Gather the financial assets, personal possessions, and real estate that belonged to the testator
- Inventory financial assets, personal possessions, and real estate
- Pay appropriate debts
- Distribute remaining assets to the beneficiaries named in the will.
Why do you need a will? Without a will, property passes in accordance with state law, and not necessarily the way one would choose
- If married, passes to spouse, unless…
- With second marriages, Decedent’s property passes to the children
- If unmarried, passes to Decedent’s children, or their descendants, or to Decedent’s parents, or siblings, or their descendants
- Decedent may have separate or community property.
A will is a legal document that ensures a person’s assets be distributed the way he or she wants. The will designates an Independent Executor or Administrator who will handle the administration of the estate. The will needs to be effective for the state in which the person lives so be sure you have a current will that is valid in the state of residency. A “Holographic Will” is a hand written will.
The will must be signed by the person making the will, the “testator”. The testator must be of sound mind (capable of reasoning and making decisions). A will must be witnessed by two persons who are at least age fourteen and are both present when the will is signed. The will should be “self-proved” by having an attached self-proving affidavit signed by the testator and the witnesses and be notarized. Notarizing the will avoids the witnesses having to appear in court to “prove up” the will.
Probate is a court process to validate will or determine heirship. If there is no will the court will determine heirs at law.
When is Probate required?
- If assets are not accessible, or cannot be transferred to proper parties by other means
- If debts are owed to creditors
- May require executor or administrator
- Will require posting of bond and supervision by court, unless independent administration is authorized.
- Executor not required if no debts at the time of death and will clearly indicates the disposition of all assets.
Alternatives to Probate include:
- Joint account with right of survivorship
- Beneficiary Designation
- Gift of Remainder Interest
- Living Trust
The individual can revoke advance directives and other legal documents at any time.
A Guardian is necessary when a person is “incapacitated” and the needs of that person cannot be taken care of in another way. A person is considered incapacitated when he or she suffers from a physical or mental condition that causes that person to be substantially unable to manage his or her financial affairs, or is substantially unable to provide for his or her food, clothing or shelter. There are two types of guardianship: guardian of the person and guardian of the estate. You may need a court-appointed guardian when you:
- Lack the ability to make personal or financial decisions due to
- Severe memory loss
- Severe cognitive impairment
- Extreme confusion
- Impaired judgment
- Hallucinations or paranoia
- Vulnerable to abuse or self-neglect
- Lack necessary medical care
- Living in unsanitary housing or conditions
- Uncertainty handling one’s financial affairs.
- No less restrictive alternative is available (No estate plan!)
People referred to legal resources for potential guardianship are frequently victims of abuse, neglect, or exploitation. Sometimes they are being physically abused by caregivers who hit them, withhold food or verbally strike out at them. Other clients lose their Social Security checks to family members or friends who take their money and leave them with inadequate resources to pay for basic living needs. The most common form of mistreatment in elderly clients is neglect. Either the caregiver fails to provide for the needs of the older person or the older adult gradually loses the capacity to take care of the activities of daily living and suffers neglect.
Should Guardianship be avoided?
Guardianship is a costly procedure. It will involve at least two attorneys (one for the Applicant and one for the proposed Ward). If there is an estate, a corporate surety bond will also be required. The guardian may have very limited authority. No major action can be taken without court approval. There is also a requirement to file an Annual Account statement and pay an annual bond premium.
Most attorneys and aging services professionals emphasize that if people have the appropriate legal documents in place ahead of time they can avoid guardianship in most cases. For alternatives to guardianship download: A Texas Guide to Adult Guardianship
• Call local area agency on aging at 2-1-1
• Call Legal Hotline for Older Texans 1-800-622-2520
Keep the original copy of the will in a fire-proof location, such as a bank safe deposit box or fire proof safe. Keep a copy of the will and originals of all other documents in a secure place at home where family members can access them in emergencies during non-business hours. The freezer compartment of a frost-free model can also store documents. The freezer is so well insulated that the paperwork will be intact through a fire. Note: a will or advance directive left on a computer is not legal.
- Call 2-1-1 throughout Texas for information and access to health and human service information for all ages.
- Call 800-252-9240 to find your local Texas Area Agency on Aging.
- Call 800-677-1116 – Elder Care Locator service to find help throughout the U.S.
- Benefits Check-up for an online way to determine benefits for which someone qualifies.
- Revised in 2021 by Zanda Hilger, M Ed, LPC
- Revised in 2008 with assistance from: Steve Katten & Gary Westenhover, Elder Law Attorneys
- Revised in 2009 by Zanda Hilger and Betty Purkey
- Written by Zanda Hilger, M Ed, LPC,
- Elder Law Handbook, 3rd Edition, 2004, Senior Citizens Liaison Committee, Tarrant County Bar Association.
- Online and print information from Centers for Medicare Services (CMS)
Permission is granted to duplicate any and all parts of this program to use in education programs supporting family members caring for elders.