Capacity and Incapacity: A Broad Context for Financial Abuse of Elders (part 1)

Fall Flowers at Hudson Gardens

Fall Flowers at Hudson Gardens

 

Aging is a process.  The fact is that most of us, especially my age cohort (the Baby Boomers), really don’t like to think about aging or incapacity or death.  Many of us think that if we eat right and exercise, we’ll just be able keep at it until we’re “done” at some appointed time, like an expiration date.  This post will give an overview of what is known in the law as capacity and incapacity and consider how these factor into financial abuse or exploitation of elders as it relates to this first installment – testamentary capacity (capacity required to make a will).

Lawyers who practice in the field of estate and elder law need to be prepared to make assessments regarding a potential client’s capacity.  The assessment are usually not so simple, but there are many different ways that the assessment can be made.  Most of my colleagues are not really happy about this, but the bottom line is our rules of professional conduct require us to get informed consent from our client, which necessitates a determination of (some level of) capacity on the part of the client.  A special ethics rule (read 1.14 here) applies where lawyers are dealing with a client with diminished capacity – and it is not an easy one to negotiate!

Let’s start with the basics . . . . We have to begin with a fundamental question when we take a look at the term “capacity” and ask ourselves “capacity to do what exactly?”  Sure, I’ve blogged about the importance of a lawyer determining client capacity in the context of elder law ethical issues before, but I’m focusing just on capacity in this post.

This is a fundamental question because like so many other legal questions, the answer begins with “it depends . . . !”  Some of the varying standards of capacity in elder and estate law can be demonstrated among these categories of capacity:

  1. To make a will (testamentary capacity) – including a will with a testamentary trust
  2. To designate a health care agent in a medical power of attorney
  3. To execute a general (durable) power of attorney
  4. To execute an advance directive (living will)
  5. To execute a revocable (or irrevocable) inter vivos (living) trust
  6. To make a gift to another person
  7. To make a gift of real estate to another person (via a deed)

Why should we be concerned about capacity anyway?  Isn’t there a legal presumption of capacity for any person eighteen or older?  Why yes, generally speaking, a person retains capacity unless a court adjudicates a person incapacitated (typically the result of a guardianship under the Colorado Probate Code, and there are guardianships under the Veteran’s Administration as well).  In fact, there is case law in Colorado which specifically states that a protected person (under either a guardianship or conservatorship or both) retains the capacity to make a will.  The appointment of a conservator or guardian is not a determination of testamentary incapacity of the protected person. Section 15-14-409(4), C.R.S. 2004.  In re Estate of Romero, 126 P.3d 228 at 231 (Colo.App. 2005).   See also In the Matter of the Estate of Gallavan, 89 P.3d 521 at 523 (Colo. App. 2004).  This court distinguished testamentary capacity from a protected person’s ability to make an inter vivos trust, which the Gallavan court held was a right vested in the protected person’s conservator. Id.

A person has testamentary capacity if he or she is an “individual eighteen or more years of age who is of sound mind.” Colo. Rev. Stat.  15-11-501.  So if the testamentary capacity standard seems to be the “basement” (the lowest level) as to what level of capacity is required, what measures can be taken to ensure that a will is reflective of the wishes of the deceased testator (will maker)?  First off, the attorney needs to be sensitive to capacity concerns of elder or ill clients, particularly to safeguard a later reasonably foreseeable challenge to capacity and also so as not to facilitate an at risk elder from being exploited by another person.  This is seldom an easy matter and it requires sensitivity based on information gathered by the attorney about the elder client’s situation, particularly when the elder is sick, in the hospital or otherwise unable to travel to the attorney’s office (elder law attorneys do typically make “house calls” for some clients).   And of course, the attorney will be considering what types of services are requested – like changing a living trust, disinheriting a child in a will or gifting real estate to a caregiver.

The evaluations of capacity employed by attorneys vary widely – as do those used by medical professionals.  The legal standard for evaluating a testator’s soundness of mind may be evaluated under either the test set forth in Cunningham v. Stender, 127 Colo. 293, 255 P.2d 977 (1953), or the insane delusion test as described in Breeden v. Stone, 992 P.2d 1167 (Colo. 2000).  The case law cited here is relevant in the will contest setting – after a testator has passed away and there is a challenge to the validity of the will.

So what is it that an attorney can do to make the will she has prepared as “water tight” as possible?  Colorado law no longer requires witnesses to the signing of a will (just a notarized signature), but for those of us who focus in this area of law, most agree that the best practice is to have an “execution ceremony.”  I often joke about this at my final meeting with estate planning clients – that my execution garb (hooded black robe, blindfold, etc.) is at the dry cleaners . . . !   Inappropriate humor aside, an execution ceremony with witnesses is helpful because it converts the will to a “self-proving” will.  The questions I ask the testator in front of the two witnesses are based on the Cunningham test referred to above, to demonstrate  a person has testamentary capacity when the person (1) understands the nature of the act they are performing (making a will), (2) knows the extent of his or her property, (3) understands the proposed disposition of the property in the will, and (4) knows the natural objects of his or her bounty, and (5) the will represents the person’s wishes.  Making a will “self-proving” helps because once a proponent of a will has offered prima facie proof that the will was duly executed, any contestant has the burden of establishing lack of testamentary intent or capacity, undue influence, fraud, duress, mistake, or revocation by a preponderance of the evidence. In re Estate of Romero, 126 P.3d at 231.  Section 15-12-407, C.R.S. 2004; Breeden, supra, 992 P.2d at 1170.

There is scant Colorado case law detailing what specific knowledge is required for a testator to be deemed to know the extent of his or her property. However, the cases which touch upon this issue, including the Cunningham decision itself, indicate that it is sufficient that a testator comprehend the “kind and character of his [or her] property” or understand, generally, the nature and extent of the property to be bequeathed. Cunningham, supra, 127 Colo. at 300, 255 P.2d at 981; see also Columbia Sav. & Loan Ass’n v. Carpenter, 33 Colo.App. 360, 368, 521 P.2d 1299, 1303 (1974), rev’d on other grounds sub nom. Judkins v. Carpenter, 189 Colo. 95, 537 P.2d 737 (1975).  The amount or value of the assets tends to be merely a detail.  In other words, “A perfect memory is not an element of testamentary capacity. A testator may forget the existence of part of his estate … and yet make a valid will.”  1 Page on Wills § 12.22 (rev. 2003).  In another installment I will continue this discussion about capacity.

To be continued . . . .

©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org

The High Price of Death Denial

Highlands Ranch probate

Fall Colors near Pine

My best friend in Sacramento sent me a link yesterday morning about (Dr.) Atul Gawande’s latest book:  Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End.  Thanks Liz!   This title is also inspired by a couple other occurrences too – Halloween and Day of the Dead are approaching soon and this weekend I will be going up for a training flight in a spiffy Cirrus SR22.

I tend to equate thinking about death and practicing dying a little every day (letting go of attachments to what appears to be the status quo) with being alive.  Some folks would question my orientation, but I believe thinking about our mortality is far from morose and gloomy, rather it reminds us that our time here is limited and precious!  Death denial has all kinds of costs associated with it.  Because I am a lawyer, I am more familiar with the legal aspects of denying death (it won’t happen to me, you can’t make me decide what I want, etc.) but there are manifold aspects.

So, I’ll get back on track with Dr. Gawande’s latest book.  No, I haven’t ordered it yet, but I did watch the clip from his interview by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show.  I liked the interview, which was a great overview of the present-day dilemma of aging Americans.

What I found refreshing was that Dr. Gawande was looking carefully at how doctors ask their patients questions about health care values, medical wishes and end-of-life choices.  One might think this is common for doctors, but it is sadly quite uncommon, unless you are talking about the palliative or hospice care docs.  Dr. Gawande had personal experience to draw on for his writing – with his mother-in-law and also his father, who went to hospice care.  But there is still much resistance among doctors (even those who would choose hospice care for themselves) to discuss hospice and palliative care with a patient.

A few things came to mind after watching the short clip.  First, I will continue my policy of pressing further when a client states “my son is a doctor, so he can make these difficult choices for me” – with my response that medical know-how does not translate into emotional capacity to make difficult decisions on another’s behalf.  Next, his observation that it is anxiety about our death which cripples us and leads us to bad decisions.  This cries out for attention in the form of a readily available fix . . . .  click here for helpful materials in pdf format from The Conversation Project (I’ve already run out of them at my office)!  Lastly, the importance of advance planning – at minimum a medical durable power of attorney along with a discussion of wishes with the selected agent – is best done when someone is healthy and well, before the scary subject of end of life care is actually on one’s medical radar.  If we can somehow “normalize” this conversation about dying, we can neutralize much of the anxiety around this topic.

Beyond the emotional costs are also the financial and ethical costs.  In the past we sometimes called these measures heroic, but the connotation was misleading at best.  The term used now is “futile.”  What is the definition of “futility” in medical terms?  Here’s a helpful article from the Mayo Clinic with some contextual definitions of the term.  Over the past several years, much has been made of a perceived government agenda concerning “rationing” of care, but is it the government’s responsibility to decide how much or what kind of heath care we receive?  Is it our doctor’s responsibility to decide if we aren’t prepared to make a decision? No and no! It is our own responsibility to decide, for ourselves and to our loved ones, especially when we do not wish either to be a burden or to be tortured.

How do we make those difficult decisions when we are incapable? Well, if we have a medical power of attorney, that is best place to start. We can also execute advance directives to help solidify the wishes we have communicated to our agent and other loved ones.  Our collective inability to have “the conversation” about health care and end of life wishes costs us dearly – both the patient who didn’t choose in advance and our community, which must collectively bear the cost of such care.

So I will close this post with the theme of festivals and holidays honoring the dead, here are a few of them:

  1. Halloween
  2. Memorial Day (originally known as Decoration Day)
  3. El Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) (the Mexican version of #4)
  4. All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day (Catholic)
  5. Bon Festival (Japan)
  6. Chuseok (South Korea)
  7. Gaijatra (Nepal)
  8. Qingming Festival (China)
  9. Pitru Paksha (Hindu)

This list is neither authoritative nor exhaustive.  Bottom line here for purposes of this list – remember the dead by honoring life in the here and know and by expressing love to those you care about while you are able (including having “the conversation” and getting documents in place to memorialize it)!

 ©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Dementia and Memory: Out of Time, Out of Mind II

Mount Hope Angel

Mount Hope Angel

This second part of the post focuses a bit more on the qualitative aspect of memory – memory as meaningful life activity, not just a necessity of daily functioning and detail management that holds together moving parts.  I will include the quote from James Hillman I used in my first post:

Why do the dark days of the past lighten up in late recollection?  Is this a subtle hint that the soul is letting go of the weights it has been carrying, preparing to lift off more easily?  Is this a premonition of what religious traditions call heaven, this euphoric tone now coating many of the worst experiences, so that there is little left to forgive?  At the end the unforgiveables will never be forgiven, because in old age they do not need to be forgiven: they simply have been forgotten.  Forgetting, that marvel of the old mind, may actually be the truest form of forgiveness, and a blessing.

Hillman, The Force of Character at 93.  In case you’re wondering about whether I am promoting some Romantic view of memory or denying all the recent advances in neuroscience, I would unequivocally state “no.”  In fact, a favorite of mine in that discipline is Dr. Norman Doidge’s book published in 2007 entitled The Brain That Changes Itself.  Particularly instructive for purposes here is his chapter entitled “Turning Our Ghosts Into Ancestors,” about psychoanalysis as a neuroplastic therapy that helps a sixty-year-old man recover long-buried memories of the death of his mother (when he was a small child) so they could be transformed and improve his relationships and life.

I think part of what Hillman is talking about is that quality of memory, which often gets neglected in our present culture that glorifies the person as a right-bearing agent of our own destiny, valued for capacity, independence and measurable productivity.   This makes me think of Massimo Cacciari’s book The Necessary Angel.  I find intriguing what he says about our space-filling tendencies of this modern obsession  we have with chronological time, especially where he observes that “the greatest idolatry is the cult of the has-been of the irreducible it-was.”   Cacciari at 51.

If this obsession of the factual, objective or “forensic” memory is idol-worship of the “cult of the has-been,” and indeed widely and universally worshipped indeed as “chrono-latry,” then might the recognition that letting go of details that do not serve life review and accumulation of wisdom be an appropriate response to that greed, of releasing the power of the idols?  If we as human beings are more than our personalities accumulating and exchanging our experiences as a form of “currency,” then recognizing this and getting past the worship of the idols of chrono-latry would look like progress!

One very important aspect of the quality of memory for many elders is as a part of life-review, of integration and wisdom acquisition and consolidation.  Another of the qualities of memory is kairos.  It strikes me that our generation’s dependence on smartphones means that many of us need to memorize fewer of the important operational details of our lives.  This is of course liberating, but it is also a trade-off.  No, I won’t go astray here to discuss that issue!  Suffice it to say that the term “memoria” in the Western classical tradition is based on the Latin term for memory.  Memoria was one of the five canons of rhetoric, which grew out of oratory.  The classical orators used no notes, let alone Power Point slides!  I add this point to draw the connection between memoria and kairos – I’ve blogged about it previously.  Kairos being the right time, the opportunity, based on an attunement to the right time to recall memory – memory being identified in the Ad Herennium as “the treasury of things invented.”  So perhaps we might come to more closely examine and question our relatively recent and very narrow definition of what is memory and look at the historical notion of memory in its broader context.  This broader view of time in both qualitative and quantitative aspects will certainly diminish the power of the idols of chronolatry.

Yes, this reminds me of the Steely Dan song, Time Out of Mind – you can listen to it here.  This is life review, traditionally a province of poets to write about the letting go at the end of a life and there is thankfully much wisdom from that quarter.

From stanza IV of Dejection: An Ode, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

… we receive but what we give,

And in our life alone does Nature live:

Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud!

         And would we aught behold, of higher worth,

Than that inanimate cold world allowed

To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd,

         Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth

A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud

                Enveloping the Earth—

And from the soul itself must there be sent

         A sweet and potent voice, of its own birth,

Of all sweet sounds the life and element!

 ©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Denial of Aging and Death as Source of Conflict

Centranthus or Jupiter's Beard

Centranthus or Jupiter’s Beard

 

Autumn here in the Denver metropolitan area is beautiful.  Some of our trees’ leaves have started turning while others have not.  The apple tree in my backyard is producing many fine apples, which I am happy to eat.  Her leaves are just starting to curl a bit.  The late tomato harvest is petering out as the nights get colder.  In between the two posts on the “time out of mind” theme I wanted to write about conflict and denial.  I haven’t written about this in a while and since October is Conflict Resolution Month, I thought the time was right!  I like the language from the Colorado Senate’s Joint Resolution (13-017) on this topic:

WHEREAS, These conflict resolution processes [mediation, arbitration, facilitation, etc.] empower individuals, families, communities, organizations, and businesses to foster communication and devise solutions that are acceptable and responsive to the needs and interests of all parties involved; and

WHEREAS, Conflict resolution is taught and practiced by citizens in many school systems, universities, and graduate programs throughout Colorado and the world as a way of solving disputes; and

WHEREAS, Community-based programs work to strengthen local relationships by fairly and equitably resolving neighborhood and community conflicts and opening community dialogues based in reason and mutual respect;

So you might be wondering what conflict resolution month has to do with fall, the inevitable changes in our lives and. . . . denial? Each of us deals with change and resulting conflict differently and our “conflict style” is often a pattern of responses of types of behaviors that we use in conflict-laden situations.  We often hone these skills in our family or sibling relationships.  How we manage our concern about conflict and how much we look at it a particular conflict as a “mine, yours or ours” type of situation greatly informs our response and participation in managing and resolving a conflict.  This is particularly so in the elder law context, in which there is often a challenge (usually a constellation of them) and difficulties presented when an elder begins to slow down or fail physically or mentally.  How family members and loved ones respond to those changes has a huge impact on an elder’s well-being.

The contemporary view of conflict styles lists five basic styles:

Avoidance (a/k/a denial)

Accommodation

Compromise

Competition

Collaboration

If you have already observed that these styles are a bit of a continuum, you are astute.  The most active and engaged styles are the last two – competition and collaboration, while the least engaged are the first two – avoidance and accommodation.  The whole idea of Conflict Resolution Month is to get people to think outside their comfort zone as it relates to conflict resolution, to educate people about the array of alternatives available to assist.  This can begin early – for several years I volunteered with The Conflict Center’s Peace Day programs in area elementary schools.  Many of us don’t otherwise learn these useful skills or get to see this modeled in our daily lives, let alone practice them with our peers.

In the interest of brevity, I will finish this post with a poem from a poet friend in New York who was a participant with me at a retreat last month.  Sometimes the most important thing about “owning” a conflict is to recognize how our lives would look without the existence of conflict.  This is often very difficult to consider – especially in the context of family relationships, sibling rivalries and unbalanced power dynamics.  This poem I just received from Richard, entitled “Yellow Birds” is about birds, space and the beautiful world we share.   So please read on.

Yellow birds, flocked to the earth,

fluttering to light, leaving to the air

her emptiness, as wind gives you leave

to land, brothers and sisters singing,

to the great green reception,

your welcome home.

 

Great space brings such joy, the

opening of the thick and heavy, the

beauty whose richness obscured, now

cleared—outbreath of the inbreath—to

breathe in without restriction, with

the freedom of the letting go.

 

So our angel unfurls her wings,

exultant in the wild air, beating as

breathing, lifting into the morning light—

soaring as walking, wide and wild, our

arms swinging, above and below

joined, one body beloved.

 

So I pick my way through the

Garden paths, past empty vines, under

the frosted purple grapes, hearing the

hawk’s cry, seeing his wings soar,

knowing as my feet trod every color’s

leaves, here I am in heaven.

 

By Richard Wehrman (with gracious permission from the author)

 

That’s all for now. . .  enjoy the fall, the ripening of grapes and the stillness it all can bring.

 ©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Dementia and Memory: Out of Time, Out of Mind I

Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester NY

Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester NY

So I’m back to that rather slippery theme of memory again – this is the first of two parts. The online Merriam-Webster defines memory as: (1) the power or process of remembering what has been learned; (2) something that is remembered; and (3) the things learned and kept in the mind.  This all sounds very quantitative and linear to me, right in line with most conventional thinking about memory as factual recall, that forensic memory which is objectively measurable.  I think the definition of memoria from the ancient Greeks is more useful and inclusive of the human experience.  Conveniently, it also encompasses the non-chronological aspect of time about which I’ve written before – kairos.  We modern Americans come to think of memory in some fairly odd contexts, like computer memory and we often liken what’s in our heads to our personal hard drive as if it were some kind of data storage system – which it is of course in a very narrow sense.  This also accounts for much of our recent “de-mentation” or offloading many of the factual details of our daily lives like calendars, phone numbers and emails to our smartphones.  So what is the nature of memory in our minds? Is the memory of our heads different from the memory of our hearts?

The Atlantic Monthly recently featured the article “Why I Hope to Die at 75,” by Ezekiel Emanuel, physician and bioethicist.  The message he states is one I have offered to clients many times: longevity has a down side, a dark side potentially in the form of a “gray area” of diminishing cognitive capacity, perceived “uselessness” and for many of us, dementia.  I think the article is an important counter point to our death-denying and youth-glorifying mainstream culture that tends to view aging as a long process of descent from some place in the prime of our adult lives, along a journey where things can only get worse.  But this article that states emphatically – 75 is long enough.  This sounds a bit like some of my Baby Boomer age mates – who having lived through a parent’s dementia – proclaim they want an advance directive that has a box which states something like “if I get dementia and need Depends, just shoot me.”  Don’t get me wrong, I applaud Dr. Emanuel’s message on several different levels in which it challenges conventional wisdom and the misplaced faith our culture has in our medical-industrial complex to keep our lives extended (not accounting for quality or purpose), but I think it misses the mark.  Because babies are delivered via scheduled Caesarean section, does that mean we can cash in our chips at a scheduled time as well?  I think not!

We are re-negotiating the tightrope of what we believe we control and what we do not control as it affects our lifespan in our old age (just as in any other stage of life, but perhaps with less baggage).  We have become used to so many answers from the medical establishment that when we have this unprecedented number of elders facing dementia and/or incapacity, we are likely to simply “declare war,” spend lots of money and turn to big Pharma for some “fix” of our “problem.”  The drug companies are more than willing to oblige and provide us with a pill to help assuage our fears, and yet another tool to interrogate the one with the slipping memory . . .  “did you remember to take your pills today?”  It often seems like an elder can’t exist as such without some kind of medical intervention!

Evident in Dr. Emanuel’s insightful article is the denial of the slowing down associated with old age (read the account of the aftermath of his father’s heart attack).  I contrast this with what the late psychologist James Hillman wrote about in The Force of Character.  In chapter nine, entitle “Leaving,” Hillman describes the conflict between his sixty-six year-old patient and her nonagenarian mother, for whom she supervised care.  The patient was continually frustrated with her mother’s inability and seeming unwillingness to be principally concerned with the factual details of forensic-based (often short term because it involves daily functioning) memory.  Hillman observes (at 88) that he saw this mother daughter conflict as exemplifying “the difference between short-term and long-term memory.  It is as if you cannot have both at once.  One has to give way to the other.”  The chapter provides useful insight into the “life review” stage of elderhood which is gaining wider acceptance as a part of life, not just a loss of the familiar ways of doing from pre-retirement adulthood.  I think it is one of the centerpieces of connected and engaged elderhood.   Hillman closes it with the following questions, so often neglected:

Why do the dark days of the past lighten up in late recollection?  Is this a subtle hint that the soul is letting go of the weights it has been carrying, preparing to lift off more easily?  Is this a premonition of what religious traditions call heaven, this euphoric tone now coating many of the worst experiences, so that there is little left to forgive?  At the end the unforgiveables will never be forgiven, because in old age they do not need to be forgiven: they simply have been forgotten.  Forgetting, that marvel of the old mind, may actually be the truest form of forgiveness, and a blessing.

Hillman, The Force of Character at 93.

This observation brings me back to the rhetorical or existential question I posed in my previous blogpost about what is remembering and what is forgetting.  Hillman weaves that question into a life’s span.  I will close this first post with a poem: Walt Whitman’s poem “Whispers of Heavenly Death”

Whispers of heavenly death, murmur’d I hear;
Labial gossip of night—sibilant chorals;
Footsteps gently ascending—mystical breezes, wafted soft and low;
Ripples of unseen rivers—tides of current, flowing, forever flowing;
(Or is it the plashing of tears? the measureless waters of human tears?)

I see, just see, skyward, great cloud-masses;
Mournfully, slowly they roll, silently swelling and mixing;
With, at times, a half-dimm’d, sadden’d, far-off star,
Appearing and disappearing.

Some parturition, rather— some solemn, immortal birth:
On the frontiers, to eyes impenetrable,
Some Soul is passing over.

The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman (1995: Wordsworth) at 328.

To be continued . . . .

©Barbara Cashman  2014   www.DenverElderLaw.org