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  • Writer's pictureKathy L. McNair, Esq.

How to avoid becoming an "Orphan Elder"

Updated: Jan 8

There are many seniors that are on their own, with limited support. Some are single, widowed, or the last one alive in their family. Others have family, but they live far away and may not be able to help. The term "Orphan Elder" has been used to describe these seniors. Approximately 22% of people over 65 are considered "Orphan Elders". This is a sad term to describe the wonderful seniors that I have met that fall into this category. Planning in advance is the key to avoid becoming an "Orphan Elder", as it allows you to make important decisions about the future and establish a safety net if you have a medical crisis.

What plans should you have in place when you are on your own?

The first step is to find an elder law attorney that you are comfortable working with. The elder law attorney will help you put the documents in place that will be needed when you are no longer able to take care of things for yourself. A good elder law attorney will try to get to know you and make sure they understand your wishes for the future. He/she will assist you in making sure that at a minimum, you have the following documents:

  • A durable power of attorney document to authorize someone to manage your finances when you cannot.

  • A health care proxy to authorize someone to make medical decisions for you when you cannot.

  • A will to make sure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes when you die.

When you don't have anyone to appoint to act on your behalf, as elder law attorneys we are prepared and available to take on these roles.

What happens to an "Orphan Elder" that does not plan in advance?

What happens if you have a stroke and are taken to the hospital, unable to communicate your wishes? Without a designated health care proxy in place, the hospital may request that the Probate Court appoint a guardian for you. Guardians are usually attorneys or social workers.

I have served as guardian for several "Orphan Elders". On the first meeting, I walk into a hosptial room to introduce myself as an attorney appointed by the court to help them. After suffering a medical crisis, I can't imagine having a stranger coming in tell me that they will be making decisions aobut my medical care, my life, and whether I can return to my home. By the time I arrive on the scene, I am dealing with a person that can no longer tell me what they want. I am trying my best to act in his/her best interest, and treat them as I would my own parent, but it is difficult when I do not know the person and his/her wishes.

If the elder also needs help managing financial affairs, a Conservator will be appointed. In these cases, the court issues an order, allowing access to the elder's financial assets. This allows the Conservator to pay bills and use the funds for the elder's best interest. The Conservator's first job is to locate and identify the elder's assets and file a report with the court, called an "inventory".

Locating the assets often becomes a scavenger hunt. I served as Conservator for one elderly man that owned a second home, that he forgot about. The neighbors mentioned that they thought he owned a summer home in New Hampshire, but no one even knew the town. After conducting a title search, I found the house, which had been abandoned for over 15 years. I had an adventure to visit the house, which was so run down that a raccoon family had moved in. Although, I found this to be an exciting case, I know that it is better for my clients to plan in advance and avoid having a stranger go on a wild goose chase, looking for your assets.

If you do not have any family and you die without a will, a Public Administrator may be appointed to manage your estate. In Massachusetts, there are about five attorneys in each county, appointed by the Governor to serve in this role. I am appointed as a Public Administrator in Suffolk County, and I have been involved in cases where people have died without a will and without any known family. In some cases, I have been able to locate distant relatives, who never met the person who died. According to Massachusetts' probate law, the next of kin, are entitled to receive the money in the estate. If they cannot be found, the money is held by the Treasurer of Massachusetts, as abandoned property. Most people would prefer to leave their money to a friend, a charity, or to their alma matter, rather than have it become abandoned property.

We have been involved in some very sad situations, where seniors have been taken advantage of by others. Having a plan in place and relationship with an elder law attorney, looking out for your best interest, provides protection against elder abuse.

If you are aging alone and ready to come up with a plan to plan for your future, visit for a directory of professionals who support seniors aging alone. If you live in the Boston, Massachusetts area, the attorneys at Senior Solutions work with seniors, who are on their own, to create a plan. We are ready to be there for you, if and when you need us, to make sure that your wishes are followed. We don't want any of our clients to become "Orphan Elders". If you or someone you know may be on their own, or at risk of being an "Orphan Elder", take the first step and contact us to begin planning for the future. Please call us at 617-489-5900 or email me at

Senior Solutions Attorneys at Law, 30 Church Street, Suite 210, Belmont, MA 02478

Phone: 617-489-5900


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