According to a recent report put out by the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.3 million people have Alzheimer’s disease. Chances are that you or someone you know has been touched by this illness. In spite of these overwhelming statistics, Alzheimer’s continues to be a disease that sneaks up on individuals and their families, quietly tearing apart lives with uncertainty and confusion. Estate planners and elder law attorneys sometimes see this heartbreaking confusion in our own offices when elderly clients or their families come to us, concerned that a loved one no longer has the capacity to sign or make decisions about legal documents.

A new article in the New York Times discusses the slow and sometimes invisible development of Alzheimer’s disease, and some of the earliest warning signs that your loved one may be suffering. “New research shows that one of the first signs of impending dementia is an inability to understand money and credit, contracts and agreements.” This comes as particularly bad news to families who put off their estate planning year after year, each time telling themselves “We’ll do this next year for certain.”

By the time families come into our office with their suspicions about their aging loved one it may be too late for us to help. “Lawyers have guidelines, published in 2005, that include warning signs of diminished capacity, like memory loss and problems communicating and doing calculations. The guidelines instruct lawyers to look at the legal requirements for capacity in specific situations, like making a gift. But many questions remain.”

Plans created after the suspicion of Alzheimer’s or dementia has set in can be fraught with doubt, and often cause conflict among family members. We have seen the rifts and heartbreak the illness causes in even the strongest of families. We urge you to take care of important legal and estate planning issues early, before questions of competence can cast the shadow of doubt over your wishes.