Considering a Senior Living Community? Understand the Fine Print

By Ryan McNeill, Attorney at Law

If you have been visiting senior living communities with the goal of transitioning to an easier lifestyle, you may have discovered there are many different choices out there! Once you have found a community or two that feel like a good fit, it’s time to dig into the legal and financial details.

Different communities have different financing plans; these may range from a large “buy-in” fee that is returned to your estate upon your death, to simple monthly payments, to variations in between. Many communities offer several options to accommodate different situations. If the community has a waiting list, you will likely need to give them a deposit to hold your space. You will want to investigate the choices and determine what makes the most sense for you. If you need to sell your existing home prior to moving, verify how long the waiting list is and talk with a Realtor to see what the home market looks like in your neighborhood. 

In addition to reviewing the financing choices, you will want to have a clear understanding of the purchase (or rental) agreement before you sign it. Here are a few things to consider:

  • What is included in your monthly payment? Look for information about number of meals, utilities, maid service, linen service, valet trash service, maintenance, transportation, activities, parking spaces, etc. You will want to understand the details so you do not have any surprises. 
  • Do you need to acquire and maintain renter’s insurance? What are the minimums?
  • Are you allowed to have guests? Is there a limit to how long they can stay? If you want to have your grandchildren spend an occasional weekend, make sure the agreement permits overnight guests.
  • Does the community allow pets? Many people are hesitant to move into a senior community for fear they will have to find a new home for Fluffy or Fido. Recent research has shown pets help keep us young; most communities recognize this and accommodate pets.
  • Are you able to downsize if your spouse dies after you have moved in? What if you are single, meet someone at the community, and want to upsize?
  • Are there any restrictions or requirements if you need to have home health care?
  • Is there an “out” clause if you decide after 30 days this was not the best choice? (The vast majority of people settle into their new living situations quickly, so this will probably not happen for you. It is good to ask about this in the event you are truly unhappy.) What if your family relocates in the future and you want to follow? If the community has facilities nationwide, can you transfer to another facility?
  • If you have chosen a continuing care community, how does the transition work if you need to move from independent living to assisted living or nursing care? For an assisted living community, what happens if you need nursing care? How much time can you spend away and still keep your unit?
  • Finally, remember to review all your legal documents during or immediately after you move. This is a major life change and you will want to ensure your will, trust(s) and advance directives are all up to date.

There can be significant differences in the terms and conditions from community to community. Make sure you understand everything in the document so you don’t have a “gotcha” moment. I recommend having an attorney review and explain the agreement before you sign it, and to compare it to agreements for similar communities in the area. I also strongly encourage you, where practical, to include your family in the decision-making process. If they accompany you to visit the various senior living communities, they will likely feel more comfortable about the transition and your reasons for wanting to move. Conversations about estate planning and transitioning can go hand in hand and will help your family understand your wishes.

About the Author
Ryan McNeill is an estate planning and elder law attorney at Brinkley Walser Stoner, PLLC, a general practice firm with offices in Lexington and Greensboro, North Carolina. McNeill speaks to groups in the Triad area on elder law and estate planning topics on a regular basis.

Download a printable version of Considering a Senior Community?