Older Americans facing difficult decisions toward the end of their lives need all the help they can get. The same is true of their caregivers.
Money issues are often a concern. Physical and mental-capacity problems may emerge. And before death, most of us want to get our legal affairs in order as much as possible.
But how do you find professional and trustworthy legal, medical and financial specialists when you're in the throes of a crisis? You might, for instance, need professional guidance when suddenly confronted with decisions on life-or-death medical treatment, end-of-life legal matters or estate planning that will affect your heirs for years to come.
It's not always easy, but you can obtain trusted advice and get quality help in the middle of the storm. Here are five steps to get the assistance you need, at a time when you need it most.
1. Ask for referrals from trusted individuals
To find professional help, start by asking friends, family and colleagues for recommendations. Experts you know, such as your accountant or banker, can also point you in the direction of, say, an estate-planning attorney or a health care advocate.
"Utilize your current network — personal and professional — to guide you to a person that's right for you and that can handle your needs," says Kara Kaiser, senior vice president and managing director at BMO Wealth Management in Milwaukee.
Northwestern Mutual's 2016 Planning and Progress Study found that the majority of Americans (54 percent) believe that the ideal solution combines a human relationship with technology. And when asked about how they prefer to receive financial advice, those 50 and older were, perhaps surprisingly, most likely to opt for "human relationship coupled with technology" (57 percent), compared with 51 percent of millennials (18-34) and 53 percent of Generation Xers (age 35-49).
2. Always interview multiple experts
Even if you need to move quickly to handle crucial legal or health care matters, resist the temptation to hire the first adviser you meet. Otherwise, you may sorely regret your choice.
"It's important to interview several advisers," says Amy Hale, a director and private wealth adviser at BMO Private Bank in Naples, Fla.
Be aware, too, that your emotions may be running high during the crisis and may cloud your judgment.
"The best thing you can do is to take the emotion out of the decision," Hale recommends.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't pay attention to your gut instincts. You should. Rather, she says, you should try not to be guided by emotions such as fear and worry.
3. Look for professionalism, compassion and communication
When interviewing potential advisers, ask questions about the expert's education, work history, compensation and more.
But perhaps even more important, especially when time is of the essence, home in on the person's compassion, professional expertise, understanding of your needs, and ability to effectively communicate with you.
It's that last area — communication — that experts say can be the most crucial determinant of how well you will click with an adviser. "A person who understands you well and communicates properly with you is vital," says Kaiser. "This may be the person you're entrusting to manage your life savings … or to ensure that your estate plan or end-of-life care is carried out according to your wishes."
It's also a good idea to have a family member with you when you conduct interviews. If geography is an issue, a long-distance relative can join via Skype or a phone call.
You can later rehash the interview with that relative, who serves as an extra set of eyes and ears, in case you miss something or get overwhelmed.
In addition, remember to have a conversation about the type of communication you prefer, especially in terms of technology. Do you desire face-to-face meetings exclusively, or would you be comfortable conducting business via email or phone?
And would you consider a so-called robo-adviser, by which you receive financial advice or money management services online, with minimal human intervention?
"The data reflects what we're hearing from our clients," says Tim Schaefer, executive vice president of client and digital experience at Northwestern Mutual. "As people's financial and personal lives become busier and more complex, they want expert guidance tailored to their needs and access anywhere at any time."
Whatever your preferences, make your wishes known to an adviser.
4. Request and check references
Before hiring anyone, be sure to ask for references from satisfied clients. Kaiser offers this tip: Ask for a recent client and a long-term client who has been with the adviser for five or more years. The reason: You want to know that new clients are happy, as well as those who've had a longer time to evaluate an adviser's performance, communication and responsiveness.
5. Make your selections while watching out for red flags
Finally, be cautious about anyone who rushes you to quickly sign documents or make payments before you can review paperwork or think things over.
"There may be some urgency of time," Kaiser says. "But there should be no undue pressure to move forward until all your questions have been answered."
Just as it's crucial to pick the right adviser, it's also important to have trusted friends and family members you can count on to see that your wishes are followed.
Legal and medical documents often require you to name people to act on your behalf if you become incapacitated, and you want to be sure they will adhere to your wishes.
For instance, Hale says, family members might balk at agreeing to a relative's request for a "Do not resuscitate" medical order.
"Those are very sensitive and difficult decisions to make," she says. "You need to be confident the individuals named have the ability and fortitude to carry out whatever your wishes are."
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