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  • Writer's pictureAlan D. Feller, Esq.

How to Introduce Mental Health Awareness into Estate Planning

The National Institute of Mental Health , based on 2016 surveys, estimates that 44.7 million adults live with some currently or recently diagnosable Mental Illness as defined by the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). That is almost 1 in 5 adults in the United States. In practical terms, most families will have at least one member who suffers from a mental illness.

The onset of a serious mental illness is an earthquake that breaks apart family foundations and crushes expectations. Young adults have the highest incidence of mental illness and serious mental illness diagnoses. Parents of mentally ill young adults will have additional caregiving responsibilities. Understanding the variety of professionals who can provide help along with available care programs and insurance coverage is a necessity. Parents must also maintain their own mental and physical health, because absorbing the pain and sadness resulting from watching a child suffer is a tremendous burden. An ill young adult will also continue to rely on parents during their recovery and there will be a delayed entrance to the job market. In situations like this, establishing a Trust for the benefit of the ill young adult, whether it be a Supplemental Needs Trust for longer duration illnesses or other protective Trusts for shorter illnesses makes sense to ensure financial responsibility.

In my experience, the most heart-breaking mental illness cases involve mid-life episodes which are cataclysmic events that shatter families. Casualties include multiple generations as children cope with a debilitated parent and spouses are thrust into the unknown, facing potentially dire relationship and financial repercussions. Even though older adults receive treatment for mental illness at a much higher rate (71.5% for 50+ years old, compared with 51.5% for 18-25 year olds and 66.1 % for 26-49 year olds), recovering the stability that a family once enjoyed is rarely achieved. Divorce often follows mid-life episodes further isolating individual family members and diminishing resources.

Legal preparation for the onset of any illness including mental illness involves the drafting of a Power of Attorney and a Health Care Proxy. For mental illnesses of longer duration, creation of a Supplemental Needs Trust to assist an ill family member with financial flexibility is important, especially if long term care and Medicaid is a possibility. Mid-life episodes may also impact retirement planning by shortening careers, reducing income and increasing reliance on IRA distributions along with employment disability options and Social Security Disability.

Mental Health Awareness can be as simple as understanding the foreseeable stressors in your life. Pressure points could include a troubled marriage, an unstable job situation, or other difficult experiences with parents, children, neighbors and friends. Self-care is the ideal. Affluence and intelligence do not shield a person suffering from a mental illness. Having the means to arrange comprehensive mental health care for yourself is an advantage that should not be squandered. Asking a loved one to seek help should not be a provocation, but often that is exactly how it is interpreted. Take the time to seek awareness and assistance and put your mind at ease.

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