Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pop wants to get hitched? Shacking up is easier!

I spoke with a flabbergasted friend last week and I've debated whether or not to blog about it.   My need to point out the variety of scenarios and possibilities for our elders and offer some practical advice won out.... so here it is:

My friends widowed father, age 82, wants to marry a woman he met through his church.   I encouraged her to support him. Provided his finances are in order; his needs will be met without monetary penalty  and with an iron clad Power of Attorney for medical care.   It's a good situation for both of them, they are of similar ethnic heritage so they like the same foods, have the same memories of growing up in the US with immigrant parents - it's all similar history.    They want to move in to an apartment in an assisted living center in the town where each raised their kids, went to church, have doctors and mutual friends.   Another important factor - both are comfortable financially and don't have any dependents that need to inherit their money. They've also downsized and both have few "heirlooms" to argue over.   It's just a great situation and each will be happy.  I've heard other, far less happy scenarios (and, you know you're going to hear about it now...)

My sister in law suffered a great deal of hurt after her grand father remarried and died soon after.  
"Grandpa" was actually the second husband of Grandma; he'd been married before but had no children.  He married Grandma when the daughter was a young woman.  He was a good husband and when a step-grand daughter came along, he wished to be called "Grandpa".    Grandma and Grandpa each brought their own houses, furniture, funds and mementoes into the marriage.  Among the four of them, they had an understanding that all of the things each (Grandma and Grandpa) brought to the marriage would go to their respective family should anything happen.  Some years later Grandma passed away suddenly.  Grandpa was lonely afterward and step-daughter didn't want to take anything from the home for fear of upsetting him.  Just three months passed and one day Daughter got a call from Grandpa's neighbor - he was married!   Daughter went to investigate and learned that it was true, Grandpa married a woman he met at his "club" and she had already moved into the house.   Daughter wanted to gather some of her mothers things only to see that many had been tossed out and the new wife refused to let her take antique furniture, photos of her family - nothing.   This began a very contentious and mean spirited exchange of visits, calls and even a couple of calls to police!  In the end, the Daughter and Grand Daughter got nothing and it was crushing for them.   They wanted the mementos from their mom, grand father and great grand parents that were with the step-grandpa.  After the shock of loosing Grandma, they left things to help him feel a sense of continuity and family and now his lonely heart was more important.  He died a few months later - no will, nothing written down and the "new" wife got it all - Grandma's house, Grandma's furniture, dishes, even the doilies.   Legally, there was nothing the Daughter or Grand Daughter could do. Grandma died with no will so everything went to Grandpa. When Grandpa died with no will it all went to his spouse. 

Now if Grand Pa had just shacked up with the new woman, they would have legal recourse.  ...  That is what I would propose to an elder if they wished to share their life with some one rather than be all alone.   There are all kinds of things to consider when elders marry:

  • In most states a spouse can be forced to provide some kind of support for necessities - no matter how long the marriage.  
  • The legal act of marriage can also tie up funds if a spouse incurs debt after saying "i do".  Debt, funds and property acquired before the marriage are not likely to be considered community property but it all depends on the state. 
  • Should one spouse need state assistance, the state can put a lien on a home even though s/he only spent a short time there and didn't contribute to the upkeep - it all depends on state law.
  • Widows pensions might also stop if a woman is remarried, to retain income, stay single!
  • The contents of a house are generally considered the property of the home owner unless it's a high dollar item like artwork, jewelry.  
  • Elders should give away heirlooms SOON or specifically call out distribution in a will.  Even if the remaining spouse remarries, the original heirs will have a legal standing to obtain things if it's written down.

I've also seen wonderful examples where families are co-operative, where grandma or grandpa WANTS to downsize and passes along heirlooms to be enjoyed while they are alive.   It seems that the painful examples are those we remember most.   I am by no means an attorney or legal expert but I do know that isolation ane loneliness are strong motivators.  If you love your elder, help them to feel less lonely, encourage them to be honest. If they want to share their lives, help them do it in a way that feels best for them and maintains relationships with their kids and grand kids.  Also try to form a friendship with the new "significant other"; they probably need some love and support too.