It is hard to follow the news without noticing that almost every day there is an item concerning old age. Sometimes these are positive. The benefits of improved health and life expectancy, and medical advances in detecting and treating dementia. Advertisements for river cruises and features showing healthy couples moving to sunnier locations. There are exciting opportunities for a monarch at 89 or a media tycoon at a mere 84.
More often than not, they are less encouraging. Improved life expectancy and better medical care lead to long term care needs that cannot be met by finite resources. Hospitals and surgeries struggle to cope while cash strapped local authorities struggle to provide social care in the community.
Fractured, far flung or struggling families cannot fill the gaps. A generation of working adults is caught juggling the needs of elderly parents and children with student debts for whom the housing ladder is just a figure of speech.
Meanwhile the cost of care continues to increase, with care providers also struggling to recruit and retain staff where the work is demanding, poorly paid and unappreciated by much of society. Tales of physical neglect and abuse are increasingly common, and make for distressing headlines. While still exceptional, they emerge from a deeper and largely unseen pool of indifferent and poorly managed care.
Good care can be a lottery in which care homes in the South East will charge over £1,000 a week so funding is a concern for those who worry whether their assets will last and whether a lifetime of saving will ever yield an inheritance for their families. Families in turn worry whether they will ever receive an inheritance. Needless to say the temptation to anticipate their inheritance is often too great and an advance on an entitlement excuses financial abuse.
The numbers involved make these issues dramatically clear. According to the Office for National Statistics, over just two decades, from 2012 to 2032, the populations of 65-84 year olds and the over 85s will have increased by 39 per cent and 106 per cent respectively; in the upper age range the actual numbers will have increased from 1.2 million to 2.6 million, an increase of over 1.4 million people. The number of people in care homes has been static for the last decade, at just under 400,000, as people maintain their independence for longer and go into care at a later age. However, this number is expected to increase in the years ahead.
These social trends have an impact in the legal sector. The number of people making Lasting Powers of Attorney increases year on year, with over 250,000 a year being registered by the Office of the Public Guardian. Clearly there is wider understanding of the need to plan ahead and appoint trusted relatives, friends or professionals to make decisions where these can no longer be made autonomously. Yet despite these efforts, the Court of Protection continues as a court of last resort, appointing deputies to manage the estates of those who lack capacity. The Court of Protection also deals with an increasing number of challenging cases. This covers the traditional area of property and financial affairs, where applications are made for gifts, settlements and wills, as well as welfare matters from deciding where people should live to whether medical treatment can be given.
At Thomson Snell & Passmore we have worked with generations of clients whose affairs have evolved to reflect these changing trends. Our workload has also grown so that we now have a specialist Court of Protection department that has a national reputation. We also have a dedicated team dealing with elderly and vulnerable clients to complement our specialist tax and financial planning services.
Many clients come to us to plan ahead for the future, making Wills and Lasting Powers of Attorney to ensure that their affairs are properly managed on death or in their lifetimes. They also come to us for advice on where and how they should be cared for and for advice on paying for care. However, not all clients have planned ahead and the best made plans may also face unexpected events. We therefore deal with clients whose affairs are not so well ordered, where a deputy has to be appointed or there is a dispute over who should act as deputy. We are also seeing an increasing number of financial abuse cases where painstaking financial analysis can prove frustrating when there is limited evidence or the perpetrator is also a family member and beneficiary under the victim’s Will.
Not all cases lead to a cynical view of human life. There are deserving and decent relatives who can benefit from a lifetime gift which may also have significant Inheritance Tax benefits – with the Court of Protection providing an effective safeguard in assessing the merits of a well-documented application.
An unusual and valuable addition to our work is where partners in the firm act as deputies, attorneys and trustees for individuals who lack capacity. The work is often demanding, as well as humbling, as it involves working with disabled and dependent individuals in a position of trust and responsibility. Often there is no one else involved and the decisions we take can make a huge difference to a person’s quality of life. Cases involve a full range of work from children and young adults with severe brain injuries and large damages awards to older clients living at home or in care homes, whose concerns range from funding care to Inheritance Tax planning. A typical day’s work may include a safeguarding alert for an elderly resident being neglected in a care home, a major building project for a disabled child, arranging a care package at home and a client anxious about her overweight cat.
It is this breadth of experience in dealing with contentious cases and making decisions ourselves that helps us give practical advice when planning ahead. We do our best to avoid problems, but will be there to guide our clients when problems do arise.