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Dementia: Legal steps and why you should take them

Matthew H. Schwimmer(Photo: Submitted)

Imagine this: you have had a keen memory and a sharp mind your entire life. But recently you have been forgetting things where you put your keys, the year you graduated high school, your childs birthday Worse yet, youre experiencing unpredictable mood swings and its alienating your friends and loved ones. You go to your doctor. After a battery of tests, the doctor gives the diagnosis: dementia. Whether it be Alzheimers, Parkinsons disease dementia, stroke-related, or one of myriad other causes of dementia in older adults, the result will be a decline in cognitive functions. Doctors have ways to slow the decline, but as of yet, there is no cure.

No one likes to talk about the devastating effects dementia wreaks on its victims, but pretending it doesnt exist wont make it disappear. Once you get the diagnosis, one of your first questions should be, How do I prepare myself and my loved ones? Those with the forethought to consider this can plan with dignity and give friends and family a beautiful gift peace of mind. Those who ignore preparation create the potential for conflict and abuse. You need to gather legal and financial documents. You need to consult with doctors, attorneys, accountants and loved ones. You need a plan.

Diminished capacity is essentially an inability to be responsible for actions like making contracts, hiring an attorney, or appointing agents. A dementia diagnosis does not mean an immediate loss of capacity. In the early stages of dementia, and even sometimes later, people are generally capable of participating in legal and financial planning. But as dementia progresses, capacity becomes less certain. Regardless, victims of dementia are increasingly vulnerable to abuses due to this increasing loss of capacity. Fights over control of legal, financial or medical decisions often instigates the abuse, and at the very least can strain relationships. There are many legal protections that can be executed before losing capacity, but not after; it is a race against time.

These protections include Powers of Attorney, advanced directives, and many other legal directives based on assets and resources. If you want to appoint agents it is imperative they be trustworthy. Untrustworthy agents often exploit their power. If you do not have a responsible person in your life, some state agencies will serve as agents. In these documents you can give particular instructions for any situation. Once your agent understands their role, they can execute your wishes. After creating a detailed plan, there can be no legitimate question as to how you want your affairs handled.

Consider what may happen without planning prior to losing capacity. Family members or others may try to take over decision-making for an incapacitated person through a conservatorship. This essentially transfers the rights of a person under a severe disability to another if a court deems it necessary. Conservatorships serve an important purpose, and frequently are the best option. Sometimes they are even the best option to pursue voluntarily. However, you can avoid the need for expensive, time-consuming, stressful, and often bitter, court proceedings if you make a plan before losing capacity. If anyone petitions for conservatorship over you, state law encourages courts to appoint the person you designated in writing, usually in a Power of Attorney document. If there was no appointment, or if that appointment goes against your best interest, a court must consider potential conservators in this order: your spouse, your children, your closest relatives, a district public guardian, or anyone else. One can see the potential for conflict.

You should not draft most legal directives and POAs without the aid of an attorney. The attorney fees for basic legal directives and POAs are modest. If you have substantial assets, it is worth the cost to consult a lawyer for more in-depth advice. Even the simplest-sounding documents can become sources of conflict later if not drafted correctly. When you start getting into the complex world of government bureaucracy, things get even stickier. And there are many resources available for people with low or no income. You can find some legal resources published by the Tennessee Commission on Aging at

Obviously, not everyone affected by dementia has the time or ability to take the steps outlined above. But the more we as a community learn about these issues, the better we can protect ourselves and each other. We should always prefer preventing abuse of older adults before it happens, over stopping it after the damage is done.

Matthew H. Schwimmer works as an attorney at West Tennessee Legal Services, 210 West Main Street, Jackson. He serves all West Tennessee counties except Shelby, Fayette, Tipton and Lauderdale. Reach him through the WTLS intake line at (731) 423-0616 ext. 250, or by email at

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Government legal fees examined - Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA The Hospital Authority of Valdosta-Lowndes County, that governs South Georgia Medical Center, paid more than $1.5 million in legal fees for Fiscal Year 2015, according to records.

The authority authorized payouts of $1,591,654 to outside counsel.

The fees were paid to 10 law firms: four in Atlanta, three in Valdosta, one in Quitman, one in Tifton and one in Lexington, Ky. In its response to an open records request, the hospital listed no expenditures as in-house legal fees.

The fees that were reported did not include fees paid to collection firms, which are paid a percentage of the collections. The daughter of Ray Snead, CEO of SGMC, is a healthcare attorney for one of the collection agencies the hospital utilizes. Authority members said Snead was upfront about his familial connections to the collection firm.

The authority paid the highest legal fees of the 11 local government entities examined, including the Lowndes County Board of Commissioners and the City of Valdosta.

The City of Valdosta paid $367,780.80 to the Valdosta firm Coleman Talley.

All of the countys legal fees were paid to the law firm of Elliott, Blackburn and Gooding.

The county commission accumulated $363,932 in legal fees, the most of any amount paid by the county.

Other county legal fees paid include:

Board of Assessors $195,580

Library $24,451

Probate Court $166

Sheriffs Office $46,929

Coroner $95

Tax Commissioner $7,415

Clerk of Court $4,760

Board of Elections $190

Magistrate Court $152

The data was collected through open records requests and is readily available public information.

Jennifer Dandron is a Reporter at the Valdosta Daily Times. She can be reached at (229)244-3400 ext. 1255.

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