I recently spoke to a lively group of Lavender Seniors in Oakland, hosted by a thriving organization serving the needs of East Bay lesbian and gay seniors (www.lavenderseniors.org), and on September 25th I’ll be a guest on AARP’s syndicated radio show. These talks prompted me to consider the particular legal issues facing older lesbians and gay men, and reinforced my sense of how challenging the current legal complexity can be for our older brothers and sisters. There are problems regarding decision-making, financial management, and estate planning concerns, and especially complicated questions regarding private and public benefits.
The decision-making questions are uniquely difficult for those who are without long-term partners, or whose partners are not mentally or medically competent. Oftentimes the connections to families of origin are strained or non-existent, and in the absence of a younger close friend it can be hard to select an appropriate person to serve as a financial or medical decision-maker. As for financial management, it is especially important that a trusted friend or professional be brought in to oversee bank and investment accounts, to ensure that there is no financial abuse or mismanagement. The legal tasks are relatively simple: both a durable power of attorney and a medical directive are needed, and for those who have living trusts, naming an appropriate substitute trustee is required.
As for estate planning, the key tasks are making sure that a valid will or trust has been prepared and signed, and that an appropriate friend or professional has been selected as trustee or executor. For those without a younger partner or friend to serve in that capacity, a bank officer or private trustee may be the best option. It’s crucial that these tasks not be postponed, and the earlier they are completed the better.
Benefits issues are especially tricky, especially for those with long-time partners. Current federal law does not recognize same-sex marriages or partnerships, which can sometimes be helpful (avoiding a disqualification from benefits based upon a partner’s income or assets) but in other situations, can be very negative (denying Social Security survivor benefits, or other Medicaid protections). For these reasons, each couple needs to make a detailed assessment of the pros and cons of registering or marrying, comparing the state and federal rules as applied to same-sex couples — and this probably will require the assistance of a gay-savvy elder law attorney.
Hopefully the mainstream seniors organizations and advocacy groups will extend their efforts to include the needs of lavender seniors — and of equal importance, the established LGBT groups must take up the concerns of older folks in setting their advocacy and social priorities.