Mitzi’s mom is her best friend. They talk on the phone daily and have a great relationship. But when her mom started getting sick, it was a race against the clock to make sure she had the care and legal protections she needed. Professor of Law María Mercedes Pabón offers advice on broaching the conversation and gets into the documents our parents should have in place years before they think they need them.
Our expert on this episode, María Mercedes Pabón, is a professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans. She recommends visiting elderlawanswers.com for resources to begin having conversations with your parents about their estate plans and end of life wishes.
This guide is a great start for those conversations. If you loved this episode, be sure to check out Dad's Mental Illness, on His Terms and When Helping Leaves You Feeling Bad After.
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Hi, everybody. Thanks for coming back to How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything, and hello new listeners. I’m Juleyka Lantigua-Williams. I’ve been having great conversations for the last two months with adult children of immigrant parents and key experts about ways that we can be closer and better understand one another. For this episode, I want to talk about something that’s really tough, especially as we become fuller, more independent adults: Our parents getting older. What happens if our parents suddenly get sick or unexpectedly pass away? How do we step up and handle their finances, belongings, and final wishes? How do we avoid being unprepared in any of those scenarios? It’s a series of tough conversations that most of us avoid for years. Thankfully, in this episode my very dear friend, Mitzi Miller, the host of our sister podcast, 70 Million, shares her experience of stepping up and handling things when her mom became ill.
Let’s get into it.
Mitzi Miller: Hi, my name is Mitzi Miller. I am an author and television and film development executive, and I’m also a first-generation Panamanian American. I call my mom and dad mommy and daddy. My mother is my best friend. Being raised in a first-gen household, we were a really tight unit. My mom has early-onset Alzheimer’s, but it started out with dementia. Out of the blue, my mom started being paranoid. She started talking about people listening to her. She became very obsessed with watching the news, how the government was treating immigrants, very fearful of being deported, although she’d been in the country for almost 30-plus years at this point and was here legally with a green card. She just became irrationally afraid of a lot of things.
I live in California. My mom is in New York. So, I didn’t see it day to day, but when I would call her, she would cut our conversations short and say, “We’ll talk when you get home, and I need to get off this phone. And such and such is listening, and I think such and such might have taken some money from me.” So, it was very small things where I was just like, “What’s going on with you? Get it together.” Then in 2017, I came to New York and I called my mom to pick me up from a friend’s house and she said that she was coming and she never arrived. And that was so unlike my mom. She’s a woman of her word and if she says she’s on her way, she’s on her way.
And when I finally “found” her, and I say that in quotes, because she just never left the house. Apparently she hung up with me and just became too frightened to leave the house. It was almost four hours later. I had to ask my sister to go by the house to make sure that she was okay, and when my sister got there, she found her just in her bedroom with the lights off, afraid that there were knives hanging from the trees outside and she couldn’t get past without getting cut.
I think I was, like any typical child, in denial. I was really hoping for a solve, because there is nothing more terrifying than seeing someone you love being afraid, being deathly afraid, and being unable to help them or to resolve the issue. I couldn’t help her, so I immediately called her doctors. But like most first-gen parents, she very rarely spoke to me about her health. My mom had cancer and only mentioned it after she went into remission. I promise you, and I spoke to this woman two to three times a day. It’s not like there were long… She just didn’t. Her health was her business and she’s fine, and her job is to take care of you and not the other way around.
Those first months became a race against time. I had to figure out who her healthcare providers were. I had to get in touch with them. I had to introduce myself. I had to convince her to allow me to help her, because again, she’s still having these delusions. She’s still insisting that she’s fine and that it’s everybody else. She might have been 68, so that’s kind of early for Alzheimer’s, so it was a fight to get her diagnosed. So, it just became this really challenging dance, where you know something is wrong, you can’t fix it, and it feels like you can’t get help no matter where you turn. You just have to catch them in a moment where they’re lucid and talk to them plainly, like I just spoke to her plainly.
I said, “Mom, there’s no knives in the trees, but I believe that you see them, but I’m telling you that they’re not there, and so we have to figure out why you’re seeing that.” And that’s how I got her to add me to her various bank accounts, and that was how I was able to get her to sign over power of attorney. If she had fought me, it would have been a very different route. When I talk to my friends, when I talk to anyone that will listen, I tell them have the uncomfortable conversations with your parents. Make sure they have wills, even if they feel like they have nothing. Make sure they have a will. Make sure if they’re open to it, put their money in a trust and put your name on it. You can still figure out ways to give them what they need, but the hassle on the back end, it’s not worth it, because you’re working under duress.
Once they start exhibiting symptoms, you’re racing against the clock just to keep up.
When I think about what my friend had to go through and continues to go through, I am amazed at what she has been able to accomplish and how much she’s learned along the way. But I can’t help feeling that if we set things up with our parents in advance, and stop avoiding the issue, it would make situations like the one Mitzi faces less stressful, and also allow us to look after our relatives with the care they deserve. But where do we even begin? To help us, I called in an expert.
María Mercedes Pabón:
My name María Mercedes Pabón. I’m a professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law.
So, you listened to Mitzi’s story. What do you hear from your vantage point when you hear that story?
Pabón: So, Mitzi was a very concerned and engaged adult child of an elderly parent, and that is obviously critical. I empathize, because I’m here in New Orleans, Louisiana, where I’m a professor of law at Loyola University College of Law, and my mother’s in Puerto Rico, so I know that those things are difficult distance. In preparing years in advance as you asked, it would be to start engaging our elderly parents in these difficult conversations of what would happen, what would you like to happen if you’re no longer able to care for yourself? What would you like us to do? And then finding the resources and the opportunities, and the means, and the abilities to do what our honored elders would like, right?
That sounds wonderful, but my reality is that my mom won’t even tell me if she’s had a medical checkup. Like they definitely are not very forthcoming with these types of details, and so how do I even begin to broach this conversation?
Pabón: Absolutely, that’s another excellent question, because I think it must be a Latino mother thing. My mother says she doesn’t go to the doctor because doctors find things, and I think it’s having those conversations about, at least from my knowledge of our Latina moms, they love being grandmas, and so if you want to be around to see the grandkids, which in my case, my mom has been around, and that’s actually more important to hear from. Not me, I’m just the mom of her granddaughters. That’s more important. So, maybe finding… They call it interest convergence. Where do the abuelita and the granddaughters’ interests converge? That you be healthy and be around.
So, what do I say and then how do I prepare to say it? What terminology do I need to use? Where can I find information about what the legal parameters are where I live? What are the legal parameters for these kinds of things in general in the United States?
Pabón: Okay, what happens with regards to elders, elder law is a specific area of law in all our jurisdictions. It varies by state, so if your elder’s in New York, or in Puerto Rico, all the different laws will vary by each state. There are organizations. Every place has an office that deals with aging. But at the end of the day, you would need an attorney in the state where the elder is located to help her prepare the documents. In Mitzi’s story, she found and she had a power of attorney that her mother was able to assign, and that’s really useful, because that’s the beginning of a conversation about, “Mamí, if you are not able to make decisions for yourself, I hope you would trust me to make them for you. And if you sign this document,” you would discuss it in advance with the attorney, right? You talk mamí to the attorney. Nowadays, with COVID, it would be all online, right?
You start a conversation of this is a power of attorney that I can act for you if you’re unable to act.
Mitzi says that her mom was thinking, “Oh, if I pass, you and your sister will just split everything.” Is that recommendable? Is it enough for a parent to state that in front of their children and have that be legally binding? Or must there always be a paper trail?
Pabón: If you die without a will, the law of all the 50 states and Puerto Rico has rules about what happens to your property, because you die without a will. And typically it is to siblings, or spouses, or if there are neither of those, ancestors if they exist. So, they’re called the laws of intestacy. If you definitely don’t want that, then you must write a will. A will valid in the state that you are a resident of, and that would include, for example for me, a will here in Louisiana, but say I have a little apartment in Puerto Rico. Well, I have to describe my apartment in Puerto Rico and still have the will adjudicated in Louisiana.
Worst case scenario question. A parent gets sick, they unfortunately pass away and no one knows where they bank, no one knows where the deed to the house is, no one knows their Social Security number. What’s the first step when that happens?
Pabón: So, you need the death certificate when mamí or papí passes away unfortunately, right? Because that’s your starting point to then go obtain from whichever entities you need information, and typically after you have the death certificate, you also need to go and tell the court that you have, especially if they die without a will, you have to open a succession. Abrir una sucesión, you know? Open an estate. This costs money, and that’s why it’s so much better if the elder can plan in advance and put away for this to all happen.
Typically, for example on the Social Security, I think once you show that you’re the heir, you have a birth certificate that shows that’s your elder, and you have the death certificate, then I think you are able to go to the different agencies and at least start a process of getting the information.
So, let’s actually create a quick list of what are the key pieces of information that we need to have on our parents as adult children, right? Like that they’re willing to share. Before we get into the big conversation about, “Will you please write a will?” What are some of those key pieces of information that we have to have about them in case of an illness, in case of an untimely death?
Pabón: Okay. The first thing would be the documents that prove the legal relationships in the family. Birth certificates, and marriage certificates, and divorce decrees if there are any, and death certificates of other relatives. For example, if it’s mamí and mamí’s widowed, you want the death certificate of papí and you want her marriage license to papí. All that, typically they keep it… I don’t know, maybe stashed in the pages of the bible, the family bible. All that information you want to start collecting as a starting point, because that way you would know with those kinds, especially if they’re originals or certified copies, then you can start collecting information from say Social Security and the different… That’s federal government, and then the different state agencies.
Okay, and what about their finances? What information should we just be aware of in terms of their finances?
Pabón: That’s a harder one, because if they are banking with… The banks typically don’t go around saying, “Okay, I’ll give you this information.” But I’ll tell you, one of the things that might come in handy would be if your elder agrees to have one of the adult children living nearby become a joint account holder to assist in writing checks and making payments as their elder’s losing capacity. And so, then you would know, in my mom’s case I know it’s Banco Popular in Puerto Rico. I don’t know much else than that and we still haven’t gotten to the stage I’m recommending, but at the very least, start finding where do they bank, what branch is it, and can we have one of the adult children join?
Are there any absolutely do not do this in any circumstance scenarios from your vantage point?
Pabón: One of the things that really is very important, there’s a whole aspect called elder abuse. So, there’s obviously the neglect and the physical aspects, right? Where if there’s adult children living with mamí and they get into what they call a tirijala, you know, a back and forth, and you want to be very mindful of avoiding anything like that, physical, emotional elder abuse. But then there’s another aspect called financial elder abuse, and this would be say you have a sibling who is doing poorly economically and starts leaning on mamí and saying, “Mamí, give me a check,” and all that. So, you have to be vigilant that we are not committing financial elder abuse on our elders, because the gifts that you give in life as an elder could be subject to, depending on each state law, if given within a certain amount of time, you might be required to give them back and put them back into the estate. There’s a doctrine called advancement, and so yes, you can give the gifts in life, and that’s… For example, you’re a caregiver and you want gifts, well, what about you setting up a contract that everyone in the contract sees fulanita’s sister’s taking care of mom, so she gets to do this with the… say Social Security that mom gets. But everything transparent and above the board rather than behind closed doors and suspect.
In light of COVID, where over 100,000 Americans have already died, it sounds kind of grim, but might this be the best time to have this conversation with our parents and say, “Look, we’re in a pandemic and we need to be prepared.”
Pabón: I agree completely, and it’s not just we’re in a pandemic, but we’re in a pandemic that’s affecting Latinos and Blacks disproportionately, and people of higher age. It’s not affecting the young as much. So, we must have this conversation, difficult as it may be. And we’re doing it for your peace of mind. And because you want everything to be as clear as possible.
All right, let’s recap what we learned from María. Find interest convergence, the place where their interests meet your interests, like living longer to be around for the grandkids. Familiarize yourself with the state-specific agencies and resources related to elder care and elder law. A good place to start? Elderlawanswers.org. Understand the terminology. Power of attorney, living will, trusts. Make a paper trail. Birth certificates, marriage certificates, divorce decrees, death certificates, keep them all accessible. Beware of elder abuse: physical, emotional, financial, from relatives or caretakers. There are laws that protect them. And remember, try to start these conversations early. Years early, before you face these tough choices.
Thank you so much for listening. We still have stickers! Do you want some? DM us on social or send us your address at email@example.com, and I’ll send you a set. How to Talk to [Mamí and Papí] About Anything is an original production of Lantigua Williams & Co. Micaela Rodriguez produced this episode. Kojin Tashiro mixed it. Cedric Wilson is our lead producer. We’d love to hear your stories of triumph and frustration, so email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even if you don’t want to be on the show, your story could inspire a future episode. Hit us up on social. Twitter and Instagram @TalktoMamiPapi. Remember to please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and anywhere and everywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts. Bye, everybody! Same place next week.
Lantigua-Williams, Juleyka, host. “When’s It Time to Write a Will?”
How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] About Anything,
Lantigua Williams & Co., June 22, 2020. TalkToMamiPapi.com.