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How Care Recipients Can Plan Ahead to Minimize Family Conflicts

Putting legal guidelines in place can help curtail drama

spinner image A man concentrating while sitting at a table with a laptop and a pen in his hand while making a caregiving plan for himself
Dean Mitchell/Getty Images

There is no perfect family. At some point in our lives, it's likely that there will be disagreements and strained relationships among family members. Throw in a major medical crisis and a loved one in need of caregiving and tensions are bound to rise to the surface. This can be especially harrowing for caregivers who must manage difficult family dynamics while tending to a loved one. But a bit of planning and preparation may help mitigate the strain and long-term repercussions on everyone involved.

Whether you are currently a caregiver for someone or still making plans about what would happen if you needed a caregiver, you may expect family discord at some point. You may already be picturing “the one” — the relative who would stir the pot, bring the drama, be abusive or make things flat-out miserable for others in the family in a time of crisis. You can see how your adult children — who have never gotten along — might use a family crisis as an opportunity to air their long-held grievances.

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Or perhaps it is more subtle. One child might swoop in to “do it all,” while the rest take a backseat. The active child will feel overworked and unappreciated; the less active children will feel left out of the loop. Emotions fester and communication breaks down. While we wish that people would pull together when times are tough and try to see each other's perspectives, it doesn't always happen.

A legal, financial and holistic plan is security for the care recipient and their caregivers. And while it can't stop family acrimony entirely, it can halt harmful behavior, gamesmanship or legal entanglement, and ideally bring about a bit of understanding and compassion among relations. Sitcoms and movies can resolve family issues by the end credits, but a tidy resolution doesn't always come in real life. This article will talk about how to plan for family conflict from the perspective of the current or future care recipient. (In this article we address the same issue from the other side of the coin — that of a family caregiver.)

Make a plan

Imagine what life looks like if you need a lot of hands-on medical care or need to put someone else in charge of your finances. When you make a plan, envision what you can do to make the process as seamless as possible for your caregivers.

Consider who your representatives are going to be and be realistic about their relationships in your decision-making process. If you have two children who are like oil and water, they may not be able to work together to help in your care. Naming them both as your co-legal representatives would probably result in a stalemate when they disagree. That, in turn, will directly affect you as the care recipient and could result in poorer quality of care and outcomes. On the flip side, if you're naming one to be the primary authority, it is important to have the conversations to assuage hurt feelings and to help the subordinate child understand your wishes.

If there's a chance someone may try to take advantage of your finances, tread carefully. Ensuring there are explicit terms in your trust documents can help keep some control over what assets are spent and how if you become incapacitated. You may name trust protectors or neutral fiduciaries to oversee things and take the heat off the financial caregiver who may have to answer to other future beneficiaries of your estate. And always think twice before naming a relative as a co-owner of property or bank accounts. There are other ways to let them help you without giving them unfettered access to your assets.

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Put legal documents in place

Explore whether there is a way to prenominate a guardian if you are ever incapacitated and in need of a court-appointed guardian. The guardianship courts see a lot of family conflicts and wrangling over who gets to be in control over an incapacitated person's affairs. The right legal documents may help stop those with bad intentions at the courthouse door if they try to gain control over you or your money.

Remember to make post-life plans, too, because families tend to get locked in legal battles when a loved one dies. Leave clear instructions about disposition of remains. Do you prefer interment at a family plot, cremation, a green burial? Is a wake something you would not want? Make it known in your documents. Telling someone verbally is a good step but formalizing it in writing is so much better. Be sure to appoint the person who gets to make these decisions if you don't leave specific instructions. James Brown was not laid to rest for a considerable amount of time after his passing while his relations argued over where his final resting place should have been. It's a tragic fate.

Also, make your plan for inheritance of money so that it is seamlessly distributed. If your kids can't get along now, don't leave them as co-owners of a piece of property that they'll have to decide to keep or sell. If they don't agree on what should be done with the real estate, then a civil lawsuit is likely to follow. Perhaps one can be the beneficiary of another asset and one takes the real estate. Get creative and try to head off the predictable disagreements. Again, appointing a neutral executor in your will or successor trustee in your trust, and including terms for handling who gets what and how they will receive it, can tamp out feuds.

As hard as it may be, lay down the law and tell everyone what you want and don't want. Be explicit, both in your conversations with your family and in your legal documents. Any ambiguity may lead to different interpretations of your wishes, which leads to possible litigation. When you're clear about what you want, other people's opinions will have to take a backseat to let your directions do the driving.

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