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Russell: Courts' future work must include protecting seniors

January 26, 2015 at 4:00 a.m. | Updated January 26, 2015 at 4:00 a.m.
President Pro Tem, Tom Dempsey listens in as Judge Mary Russell looks up to the gallery to acknowledge her guests who have been able to avail themselves of different programs through the court system or through one of her pet programs, truancy court. Russell presides over truancy court each Thursday morning at Lewis & Clark Middle School.

State Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny was surprised when Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary R. Russell included "protecting our elders" in her State of the Judiciary speech last Thursday.

Russell's used almost three minutes of her 25-minute to share her concerns for future cases involving the elderly.

"As baby boomers continue to age and people live longer, we are on the brink of an unprecedented population shift, with a higher percentage of older people than ever before," she said.

And that "Silver Tsunami" means, Russell told a House-Senate joint session Thursday morning: "We can expect increases in the number of probate cases and hearings involving mental capacity.

"At least one of our courts is already seeing this impact. (Judge) Pat Connaghan of St. Louis - last year named the national probate judge of the year! - reports a dramatic increase in the number of older persons with dementia in need of a court-appointed guardian or conservator."

After the speech, Keaveny, D-St. Louis and a lawyer who handles trust and probate cases, told the News Tribune: "Alzheimer's and dementia are an increasing problem.

"Guardianships are more and more in demand - anything we can do to streamline that process and make it more consumer friendly, we need to do it."

Jefferson City lawyer Reg Turnbull's practice also concentrates on seniors' issues.

"Larger numbers of us of the baby boom generation are getting to an age and having conditions where we need assistance," Turnbull said last week. "Dementia usually sets in in the 70s to early 80s, but (we're seeing) early onset dementia in the 50s and early 60s.

"And it seems like we're getting a higher incidence of it."

Turnbull and Keaveny both said people who are getting older should be making plans, now, for their care in later life.

"It's nothing to be afraid of," Keaveny said, "but - if you would spend a couple of hours getting things in line now - you would save a lot of problems in the future."

Turnbull added: "We always say, "Plan while you can.' Once you can't, you can't do it - and then the courts will have to be involved. ... Whatever planning you do in advance will save you money and all kinds of problems down the road.

"People need to appoint their own individuals to take care of them (as) agents under durable power of attorney. And it can be as simple as going to a lawyer and doing a will or a trust and health care and financial powers of attorney."

Some things can be done without an attorney, Turnbull added, as long as you use a form that's appropriate under Missouri law, "because we have special requirements that other states don't have."

But, when it comes to financial controls and giving someone a financial power of attorney over your accounts - for those times when a person isn't able to make their own decisions - Turnbull suggested a lawyer is necessary.

"There are some special things that need to be in it," he said, "and we need to, actually, do some counseling, to make sure that the person who is appointed is, actually, able to do it."

And the attorney's face-to-face meeting can help prevent someone from scamming the elderly person, he said.

Turnbull said it's best to hire an attorney who focuses on estate planning or elder law.

"You need someone who spends at least 50 percent of their time doing estate planning, or elder law," he said. "Or both," because people who do criminal law are experts in a different area of Missouri's sometimes complicated statutes.

People with questions can contact the Missouri Bar's Lawyer Referral Service, or call a lawyer they already know.

"It is incumbent on us now to reexamine the laws, to ensure that guardians and conservators promote independence, not dependence, for those in their care,: Russell said in her speech last week.

"We must also tighten our laws to provide maximum protection against elder abuse, neglect and financial exploitation."

Turnbull said some Missouri lawyers "are trying to overhaul the guardianship statutes" that last were rewritten in 1983, "but we probably won't have it ready to introduce until 2016."

Russell told lawmakers: "Experts predict that, in just five years, the number of Americans age 65 or older will exceed the number of school-age children.

"And, just 10 years after that, one-fifth of all Missourians will be 65 or older."

Keaveny and Turnbull agreed seniors are a growing part of the population.

But, Turnbull added: "We're (also) starting to get more and more younger people ... basically because birth rates aren't too bad, and immigration."


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