If your parents are getting on in years, you may be helping them with their finances and other matters, such as medical visits and shopping. You may live close by and be able to visit weekly or more often. Or you may live far away and were visiting every few months before the coronavirus struck. Either way, due to COVID-19 you may not be able to visit right now, whether because flights are no longer available, you're working more than full-time home-schooling your children, your parents’ residence has barred visitors, or you yourself are not safe because you have to continue to go out in the world. The last may especially be the case if you are a medical professional.
So, how can you continue to assist your parents from a distance? The answers depend on the types of help you have been providing, but here are a few options:
If you have been helping your parents pay bills and manage their finances and can no longer drop by to help them write out checks, your parents may be able to give you online access to their accounts. While, technically, the bank or financial institution may not permit anyone other than the account holder to have online access, if your parent provides you with their username and password, who's the wiser? Extraordinary times can require out-of-the-ordinary solutions.
If your parent doesn't already have online access to their accounts, you should be able to set this up through a conference call with your parent and the financial institution. With newer two-factor verification, the institution may send a text or email every time you log on to the account. If you're setting up the online access with your parent, you should be able to use your cell phone for these texts. If not, you'll have to coordinate with your parent or see if you can change the dual-verification contact information.
It might also make sense to have your parents’ mail forwarded to you for the time being, or work on having regular bills, such as for utilities, either sent to your address or turned into e-bills to make it easier for you to pay them on-line.
For the future, make sure you already have online access to your parents' accounts, preferably doing so under the financial institution's rules, whether being named as a joint owner, under a durable power of attorney, or as co-trustee of a revocable trust. We recommend this even in the absence of a pandemic and if your parents can still take care of their finances themselves right now. It allows you to step in seamlessly if and when necessary and it gives you the ability to see what's going on with your parents' accounts. While your parents may not want to be monitored, older Americans are prime targets of scams. Having this oversight ability can help you identify any unusual disbursal from your parents' accounts and intervene as appropriate, while permitting your parents to continue to handle their own finances.
When things get back to normal, even though you have online access, you and your parent still may want to go back to your assisting them with writing checks. Not only will this give them back a sense of control and normalcy, it will give you a chance to visit with them and make sure they're doing well.
Virtual assistance with health care is more difficult than with finances. Doctors, their offices, and pharmacies may be barred by HIPAA restrictions from communicating with you. They are probably not set up to video conference with you when your parent visits for a check-up or medical or dental procedure. The one silver lining in this regard, is that in all likelihood all of your parents’ non-emergency medical visits have been cancelled for the duration of the pandemic.
Many medical providers now are expanding their ability to offer telehealth visits so they can meet with patients by video conference. It’s an open question whether these systems are equipped to offer small group meetings. While such sessions must be HIPAA compliant, your parents’ authorization to include you should do the trick.
In general, you will be able to communicate more easily with your parents’ medical providers if you have both a health care proxy and a HIPAA release. While the health care proxy is more comprehensive and gives you the power to make health care decisions for your parent, technically it's only effective when a doctor has found your parent to be incapable of making their own medical decisions. It may be of little or no help in the current situation.
A HIPAA release can be effective any time, giving medical personnel the ability to communicate with you. In addition, while your parent can name only one agent at a time on a health care proxy, they can name any number of agents on a HIPAA release.
While it's good to have both documents in place ahead of time and they are normally included in any estate planning package prepared by a law firm, downloadable forms are available and do not have to be notarized, though the health care proxy requires two witnesses.
You can take these steps now in this emergency and when it's over, make sure you and your parents have everything in place for the next one (while still hoping there isn't a next one).