Protecting your – or your elderly relative’s – health, welfare and finances

As you get older, it can become concerning to wonder what may happen to you or your assets if you were to get ill, or to pass away unexpectedly.

However, with some forward-thinking and ‘estate planning’, you can get on with living your life, knowing that your wishes will always come first in the future.

Make – or update – your will

A will sets out what you want to happen to your assets when you die. If you die without a will, your assets are distributed according to a set of rules, rather than your wishes.

Assets can include:

  • Property (jointly held property automatically passes to the other person)
  • Vehicles
  • Savings (joint accounts automatically pass to the other person)
  • Investments
  • Valuables such as jewellery
  • Home contents

Generally, pension and life-insurance benefits go to a specified person (for example, your partner) rather than being included in your will.

Your will needs to make clear:

  • Your beneficiaries – the person or people you want to receive your money or property after expenses (taxes, funeral costs, debts and so on) are paid.
  • What happens if a beneficiary dies before you.
  • Any gifts for a particular person – these can be listed in a letter of wishes. This, however, isn’t legally binding, so specify valuable items in your will.
  • Legacies for any charities.
  • Your executor(s) – the person or people (up to four) who will deal with your estate. Executors can be family members or friends (even if they’re beneficiaries), or a solicitor (who will charge).

When drawing up your will, do get expert legal help. Although you can buy DIY will kits, mistakes are common and costly to fix. Expert members of Solicitors for the Elderly can help with advice tailored to older people.

Free Wills Month (March and October in England and Wales) offers those over 55 the opportunity to have a simple will written or updated by a participating solicitor.

Will Aid (UK-wide every November) gives those of all ages the chance to have a will written in exchange for a charity donation.

If you made your will a while ago, do check it. Changes – such as a house move or new grandchild – might mean it needs updating. Never make changes on the will itself, though. Small changes can be made with a codicil. Bigger changes mean a new will must be written and the old one destroyed.

For more practical advice on wills, see Age UK’s detailed guide.

Manage documents

It’s a good idea to sort out important documents and tell your executors where you’ve filed them. These might include:

  • Your will and any codicils (don’t keep these in a bank safety-deposit box as the will is needed to allow executors to have that box opened)
  • The deeds to your home
  • Bank account details
  • Passport
  • Driving licence
  • Birth certificate
  • Pension plan details
  • Insurance policy details
  • National Insurance number

Remember your online presence

Many of us shop, bank, interact and socialise online, so we need to consider what happens to this ‘digital legacy’.

Make a list of all your accounts and profiles – from social media to online stores – and specify what you’d like to happen to each one. For example, you might want your Amazon account to be deactivated, your Facebook account to be memorialised (making it a place for friends and family to share memories), and an online storage service where you keep precious photographs to be made accessible to loved ones.

Visit the Digital Legacy Association for advice, plus a downloadable template for listing accounts.  

Set up a lasting power of attorney

If, in the future, you’re no longer able to make important decisions, it’s good to have someone ready to step in on your behalf. The legal authority to do this is called a lasting power of attorney (LPA).

  • A finance and property LPA covers money matters, from operating your bank accounts to buying or selling property.
  • A health and welfare LPA covers medical treatment, care and living options.

Ideally, arrange LPAs well in advance. Once someone no longer has ‘mental capacity’, a friend or family member will need to apply to the Court of Protection to appoint someone to act for you, which can be expensive and time-consuming.

Crucially, you must trust your attorney – the person acting for you – completely. If you prefer, you can have more than one attorney (maybe two of your children), specifying which decisions each can make alone and which they must agree upon.

LPAs should be drawn up with a solicitor, with safeguarding clauses included to ensure attorneys always have your best interests at heart. An LPA must then be registered with the Office of the Public Guardian. For more, see advice at Age UK and GOV.UK.

Two people holding hands

Consider making an ‘advance decision’

If there are circumstances in which you’d refuse medical treatment, even if refusal means you’ll die, then an ‘advance decision’ – also known as a living will – might be an option. This only takes effect if you become unable to communicate your wishes and is legally binding for your healthcare team –but discussing this in advance with your doctor is vital.

To refuse life-saving treatment, your advance decision must:

  • Be in writing
  • Specify that you refuse the treatment even if refusal means your life is at risk
  • Be signed and witnessed 

Write an advance statement

Though not legally binding, an advance statement helps ensure your preferences are taken into account in your day-to-day life. You might list:

  • Where you’d like to be cared for – for example, in your home
  • Foods you like or dislike
  • Favourite clothes
  • Grooming preferences such as shaving, hairstyle, make-up
  • Religion or beliefs
  • Music and TV programmes you enjoy

Think about care

Many people worry about needing more care, but thinking ahead can help you stay independent for longer. Our hub has many suggestions, from simple ways to feel safe and independent at home and dealing with chores, to getting the care you need in your own home.

If you have a specific condition, discuss possible future care needs with your doctor. If moving into assisted living or a residential home is a possibility, you can explore your options and make your wishes known. Start by looking at reports from the Care Quality Commission (England), Care Inspectorate Wales, Care Inspectorate (Scotland) or Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (Northern Ireland).

Do some funeral planning

This may seem gloomy, but knowing your funeral will truly reflect the person you are can be comforting. Plus it reassures your loved ones that they’re honouring you in the right way. A letter of wishes can state, for example, whether you’d prefer a burial or cremation, where your ashes might be scattered, and music or readings you’d prefer.

Funeral Choice has information on planning your funeral, and see Money Helper for advice on funeral finances.

Consider inheritance tax

A spouse or civil partner can inherit tax-free. Otherwise, inheritance tax of 40% is payable on everything over £325,000, with an extra £175,000 tax-free if you leave your main home to a child or grandchild.

Inheritance tax planning can help ensure family and friends receive the maximum they’re entitled to. But expert advice – such as from Solicitors for the Elderly – is essential.

Don't forget pets

If you have a precious animal companion, consider what should happen if you can’t care for them fully. Volunteers from The Cinnamon Trust charity can walk your dog, take your cat to the vet, and foster pets during short-term hospital stays.

You can also arrange for The Cinnamon Trust and its volunteers to take on your pet’s lifetime care if you go into residential care or when you die. Dogs Trust and Cats Protection also have schemes that mean your pet will be taken to their centres for rehoming.

Further reading

Additional support at home

The Priority Services Register (PSR) is an important, free support service which is designed to support those who need a little extra help in the event of interruptions to their gas, water or electricity supply. If you or someone you know has extra communication, access or safety needs, signing up to the PSR will help ensure you or they can access the best possible services at all times, and feel safe and independent at home. 

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