Local residents armed themselves with the legal information they’ll need as they age during an elder law clinic on Tuesday at the Soldotna Public Library.
Greg Peters, an elder law program director for Alaska Legal Services, travels all over the state to give presentations to Alaska’s aging population. For an hour and a half, he answered questions and clarified misconceptions for nine listeners at the library and for those watching via teleconference from Homer, Kenai, Seward, Wrangell and Ketchikan.
“We do these kind of to provide legal information to people as a way to better serve the community and reach out to more people,” said Josh Fleshman, a staff attorney with Alaska Legal Services based in Kenai. “We also are a full-service law firm, but by doing these clinics we can reach people who don’t necessarily qualify for our services.”
While Peters went over legal issues like guardianship, wills and advanced healthcare directives, he emphasized the benefits of having a power of attorney above all. Filling out a power of attorney form allows aging residents to pass of the burden of important decisions to a third party and can simplify matters dramatically in the event of an elderly person becoming physically or mentally incapacitated.
Clinics like the one held Tuesday are important for clarifying myths when it comes to elder law, Peters said.
“Every problem we can prevent is a plus, because the ramifications of not doing something can be disastrous,” Peters said.
One of the most common misconceptions Peters hears from those who attend his workshops is that they need to make a will to keep the state from taking possession of their property and other assets.
In fact, the state has a system in place to hand possessions over to family members in the event a person dies without a will. Another is that a power of attorney continues to be valid after a person dies, which is not the case.
“We get calls on that all the time,” Peters said. “So that’s usually a shock to them when I say, ‘You were the power of attorney, but right now you are nobody.’”
Alaska is somewhat unique in that it still accepts handwritten wills as valid, but otherwise is up to date in terms of elder law, Peters said. All wills still need to be witnessed and should be notarized, he said.
Another thing that comes as a shock to many older people is that Alaska does not recognize common law marriages. All to often, Peters and others are presented with cases where two people built a life together but never married, which leaves the surviving partner with little legal claim over possessions and property. Carol Joyce of Clam Gulch said she attended the clinic to gather all the information she could to be able to revisit and reevaluate her own family’s legal situation as different scenarios come up, including the fact that her husband has Alzheimer’s disease.
“He has a lot of serious medical issues, and it causes questions to come up,” Joyce said.
It is never too early for elders, or anyone, to start thinking about power of attorney and other issues, Peters said.
“It’s only too late,” Fleshman said.
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