You must follow the law when accessing your aging parent's personal records (financial, legal or health). Each of these types of records has a different legal authority associated with it. Don't be intimidated - each legal authority has a process associated with it and you are taking the first step.
As your first step, if you have not already, you should have a discussion with an attorney and your parent(s) about setting up a general power of attorney, durable power of attorney, joint account, trust, or advance directive. One (or all) of these documents will give you the legal authority to make decisions and obtain the legal, financial, and medical documents necessary to take care of your parent(s). Understand what legal authority you need to access your parent's financial, legal and health records. With these authorities you can help with managing their long-term care including small actions such as paying bills and signing records to life-decisions about palliative care.
Why do I Need Written-Legal Authority to Access my Parent’s Information?
The primary reason you will need written legal authority to access your parents’ documents is the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). HIPAA keeps a person’s health information and records private. Unless your parent gives you written authorization to receive that information, it is illegal for doctors to share any details with you about your parent’s health.
What Legal Authority Should I Establish?
There are several types of authorities needed to properly manage and obtain your parent(s) legal, financial, and healthcare affairs. Below is brief summary of some of the available authorities. You will want to confirm if there is a fee for accessing or obtaining any of the documents below.
- Health-Care Proxy: a legal document that names a health care agent. The health care agent will not only have decision-making powers but also have full access to confidential medical records. As the proxy, you will want to be aware of your aging parent's beliefs, attitudes and feelings for some the following:
- Position on palliative care
- Life-sustaining care
- Religious beliefs
- Opinion on healthcare providers
- Attitude on overall health, well-being, illness and death
- Advance Healthcare Directive: written instructions regarding an individual’s medical care preferences. The forms vary from state to state, but in general, advance directives can include a Living Will, Health Care Power of Attorney or Health Care Proxy, and Do Not Resuscitate or Do Not Intubate Order (DNR or DNI).
- Durable Power of Attorney (Financial Power of Attorney): is a document that grants a person or persons (“Attorney-in-fact”) the legal powers to perform on behalf of the elder (“Grantor”) certain acts and functions specifically outlined in the document. This power is effective immediately and continues even if the grantor becomes disabled or incompetent. The powers usually granted include real estate, banking and financial transactions, personal and family maintenance, government benefits, estate trust and beneficiary transactions. This grants the power of attorney to you.
For a complete list, contact a legal adviser. After you obtain these authorities to access the important records, you need to consider where to keep, store and save the records themselves. Each document you obtain will have a myriad of personally identifiable information so storage in a secure location (digital or physical) is a must.
If you come across challenges obtaining the documents due to a closed office, they are not available or other circumstances - consider alternative ways to obtain it through your insurance company, state medical board, financial institutions, and other government regulators or authorities. Many of the records will fall under the state health and human services department. Ideally, medical records are available as electronic medical records or electronic health records (EHR).
Why Are These Authorities Important?
At some point, your parent may not be able to manage their own legal matters and will rely on you to act in their best interest. Planning ahead allows your parent and your family to have the legal authority to make critical decisions. If these authorities are not established prior to your parent becoming incapacitated then you or another family member must ask a court to appoint a conservator or guardian, which may be a more complicated and difficult process.
To establish any of the authorities listed above you should contact a professional legal advisor immediately. If you do not have an advisor consider obtaining the legal services an elder law attorney. With this guidance you will better understand federal law, how to make wise financial decisions (and medical decisions), see bank accounts, navigate estate planning and many more complex topics.