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Cassidy: Legal Protection for Seniors

A recent New Yorker article described how a private guardian convinced a judge to give her the power to remove an elderly Nevada couple from their house and send them to a nursing home, sell off their personal belongings and take control of their assets, completely shutting out their daughter, who visited nearly every day.

While that couple was eventually able to recover control of their lives, the Nevada legal system allows strangers to take advantage of negligent or complicit doctors, lawyers and probate judges to seize control of elders’ financial, personal and medical decisions. Ironically, the confidentiality of judicial proceedings, intended to protect privacy, can work to shut out relatives and friends who could provide support.

In Vermont, fortunately, there are public legal guardians, paid and overseen by the state, for those who are truly unable to make their own decisions. At the same time, Judge Robert Pu, a Vermont probate judge, explained to me that elders – anyone, in fact – can take concrete steps to protect their own interests while they are fully competent to make their own decisions.

First steps include completing and filing an Advance Directive, which details what medical treatment a person does, or does not, want when that person is not able to express decisions, or perhaps even to make them. In the Advance Directive, available online, the person also names a friend or relative to make medical decisions not addressed in the document. Sadly, however, medical personnel may not always honor advance directives, so the next level of protection is a Medical Power of Attorney; templates for this document, and for a Financial Power of Attorney, are also available online.

And finally, there is guardianship: a person can choose to appoint a legal guardian – a child, another relative, or a close and trusted friend – to make decisions on his or her behalf. To name a guardian, a lawyer is not necessary: after paying a filing fee, the person appears before a probate judge to explain whom he or she wishes the court to appoint. Judge Pu explained that appointing a guardian is a kind of insurance policy: if everyone involved can acknowledge mortality and wholeheartedly support the appointment of a guardian, an open discussion before a guardian is needed can be the best way to head off bitterness and misunderstanding in times of crisis. His message was that the time to get started is now.

Advance Directive Forms

Power of Attorney Forms

Maggie Brown Cassidy recently retired from teaching French at Brattleboro Union High School. She was also a teacher trainer and founder of the BUHS Swiss Exchange, which provided homestays and immersion experiences for hundreds of students in Vermont and Geneva. She continues to teach adults and has written many features for the Brattleboro Reformer.
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