What To Know When Considering Legal Documents


When you are looking to buy into a senior community or to take out a reverse mortgage, when you are considering refinancing, or want to enter into a home equity line of credit (HELOC), you may in each case be confronted with the daunting task of wading through stacks of unfamiliar paperwork that can be intimidating. The tendency may be just to sign, having been assured that everything reflects your best wishes.

Some years back a new client came to our office with a relatively simple document, a Release, and asked us to review it to determine if there were any problems. His explanation was “I looked at it and recognized it is a legal document. Knowing that, I realized I needed a lawyer before signing.” He was right in that case. He was giving up certain rights and he needed to know what he would receive in return was a fair exchange.

Obviously, recognizing the number of documents we sign on a day to day basis this conclusion could not apply to everything. For instance, each time we sign on to a new software program we are typically confronted with a lengthy statement which will not allow us to continue until it is signed. Most often it relates to disclaimers stating the vendor is not responsible for losses connected with use or to assertion of exclusive rights to the underlying program. However, it can be useful to read through from time to time to provide assurance that this is all.

I would suggest also that when legal documents have longer term consequences and your signature is needed to proceed, you might take a closer look or ask a knowledgeable person in that field whom you trust, whether an attorney or your financial advisor, to do it for you.

Here are some examples of what I mean.

Suppose you are moving to a Senior Community. It makes a difference what kind of community you are moving to.

When moving to a Continuing Care Retirement Community or Life Care Community, applicants could see documents that look like real estate transactions or rental transactions but there might also have be provisions regarding health insurance, entry fees, deposits, costs if you move to a higher level of care, refunds and estate provisions. We review many CCRC agreements as do other elder law attorneys. If you need help understanding the agreement, there is help to be found.

When entering Assisted Living which in Pennsylvania is referred to as Personal Care, papers for signing may include everything from laundry policies to pharmacy selection, financial disclosures and statements of residents’ rights. Not all papers to be signed are equally important but there should be some understanding of what is being signed.

When entering a nursing home that accepts Medicaid, you and your agent should know that nursing homes that take Medicaid cannot demand payment on admission from an adult child or power of attorney from their own funds. However, Pennsylvania does have support provisions regarding children referred to as “filial responsibility.” If you cooperate with the nursing home or obtain assistance from an elder law attorney in completing a Medicaid application properly and complying with the rules, this should not be a problem.

Here are some other legal issues to consider. If you are a family member, there are specific questions that the trained eye looks for that are not generally apparent to the person completing the form.

For Persons Other Than the Person Being Admitted – Are You a Guarantor, Indemnitor, Responsible Party, Power of Attorney or Just a Family Member?

When someone signs a legal document other than the person receiving the services it is natural to say “what am I committing myself to?” It might depend on how you sign. A “Guarantor” or “Indemnitor” typically agrees to pay even if it means from his or her own funds. “Responsible Party” usually means requesting who should the community contact to deal with business matters. Still you should sign “as power of attorney only” to be sure.

How To Be Protected. Seek legal advice from an elder law or estates attorney if you have questions and read carefully. You will be fine if you know what you are agreeing to.

About the Author Janet Colliton

Esquire, Colliton Law Associates, P.C. Janet Colliton has practiced law for over 38 years, 37 of them in Chester County, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her practice, Colliton Law Associates, PC, is limited to elder law, Medicaid, including advice, applications and appeals, and other benefits planning including Veterans benefits, life care and special needs planning, guardianships, retirement, and estate planning and administration.

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