How Does Guardianship Work?

For family members of the estimated 6.5 million dementia patients in the U.S., it is crucial to understand whether guardianship may be an option for their loved one. A recent article from Next Avenue titled “Thinking of Becoming a Guardian?” explains how the guardianship process works and what factors go into the decision-making process.

Guardianship is the position of being responsible for someone else. State courts usually appoint a guardian to make decisions for a person, if the court finds that person to be incapacitated or unable to make safe and reasonable decisions for themselves. People who are placed under guardianship, known as “wards,” often lose their independence in making financial, legal and health care decisions.

If full guardianship is awarded, the person cannot make decisions about whether they may vote, marry, where they live, or make their own end-of-life decisions.

Two tasks that are evaluated when considering guardianship are a person’s ability to manage personal finances and to take medications as prescribed.

The court may call on a geriatrician or psychiatrist to evaluate the person’s functional behavior, cognitive function, disabling conditions and ability to meet their essential needs.

There are benefits to guardianship for someone who is not able to care for themselves. It ideally creates a safety net for a person who cannot make informed decisions for themselves.

this, of course, assumes that the guardian is honest and accountable, which is not always the case. The inconsistencies plaguing the guardianship system include minimum standards for guardians, lack of regular independent reviews of the need for guardianship and lack of educational requirements for guardians.

Once guardianship is assigned, there is a tendency for the person to become lost when no follow-up is done. The very same person who lacks capacity to care for themselves is not going to be able to advocate for themselves, contact an attorney or access funds for court proceedings.

There is also a tendency to assign full guardianship for a person, rather than less restrictive alternatives.

There are alternatives, but they require planning and discussion. More than 40% of Americans have not discussed their wishes for end-of-life care with their loved ones, according to an article in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Families should have a conversation at the first sign of memory loss or when preparing for retirement regarding wishes for end-of-life care and write them down as part of an Advanced Directive—also known as a Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney—when preparing their estate plan.

Another important document, although not legally binding, is a “Value History,” where you share your values and beliefs as they may impact care choices.

Designate a Power of Attorney and list two or even three back-up candidates. This person will be responsible for financial, legal and personal matters, avoiding the need for guardianship.

Appointing a family member or friend as a guardian is the ideal solution. However, there are instances when the best person to be a guardian is not a family member, but a court-appointed outsider. This relieves the family of being the ones who need to inform a person suffering from dementia with the news of having to move into a nursing home facility or sifting through financial records to learn that the family home is in foreclosure. The family can focus on being supportive and loving, while the guardian deals with the sometimes harsh realities of the person’s life.

Speak with your estate planning attorney to learn about how guardianship works, and whether it may be the right move for your family.

Reference: Next Avenue (Dec. 23, 2022) “Thinking of Becoming a Guardian?”

How Can an Elder Law Attorney Help Me?

Seasons’ recent article entitled “Finding an elder care lawyer” discusses ways in which an experienced elder law attorney can help you.

Social Security. Did you know that you’re statistically more likely to achieve a positive outcome when you get help from a lawyer when approaching the Social Security Administration?

Elder attorneys know the steps they can take to get the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) your senior deserves. Both of these programs can provide your senior with considerable financial assistance as they age.

Medicare and Medicaid planning. An elder attorney can accurately assess your eligibility and determine if it’s worth applying for Medicaid. If your application is denied, your attorney can also help you to appeal this decision.

An experienced Medicare lawyer can also help you to understand the various options available to you, letting you move forward and pursue the best possible health care assistance for your elder loved one. You may be paying more than necessary in premiums or out-of-pocket expenses, and a lawyer can guide you toward more suitable choices.

Probate. You may need to engage an elder law lawyer after your senior loved one has died. They can guide the entire family through this difficult time, assisting executors and ensuring that beneficiaries receive their inheritances.

While the probate process can be avoided entirely if your senior works with a qualified estate planning attorney prior to their death, there are several estate planning tools that can make inheriting assets much easier, including trusts.

With help from an experienced estate planning attorney, your senior can identify the most effective types of legal documents for their needs. Estate planning attorneys can also help with wills, advance directives, powers of attorney and more.

Reference: Seasons (Aug. 30, 2022) “Finding an elder care lawyer”

Is a Living Will the Same as an Advance Directive?

A comprehensive estate plan contains far more than a last will and testament. It also contains a number of documents to communicate wishes for decisions to be made during life. These include a living will, an advance directive and a healthcare power of attorney, as explained in the article “What Is a Living Will and Do I Need One?” from healthline.

What is a living will? A living will is a document providing instructions for medical care, or in some circumstances, for the termination of medical support. They indicate wishes for the use or discontinuation of life-sustaining medical treatments. The living will is used if the individual becomes incapacitated and cannot communicate normally. Incapacitation is determined and certified by a medical professional. Living wills address such treatments as resuscitation, hydration, a feeding tube and pain management.

Each state has its own rules for creating a legally valid living will. The information required in most states is:

  • Legal name and any aliases or nicknames.
  • The current day, month and year.
  • A statement attesting to being of sound mind and body.
  • Healthcare instructions for events with no reasonable expectation for recovery or quality of life, which may include CPR, DNR (do not resuscitate) and do not intubate (DNI).
  • The name of your healthcare proxy, the person who you want to communicate and state your wishes and the name of an alternate healthcare proxy, if you have one.
  • Witness statements indicating you willingly and rationally signed this document (the number of witnesses varies by state).
  • Your legal signature.

An advance directive is not the same thing but can include a living will. The advance directive has two parts: the living will and the healthcare power of attorney. These documents don’t address finances, property distribution, guardianship of children or any non-medical matters. For those, you need a last will and testament.

The healthcare power of attorney is a document identifying the person named to make healthcare decisions for you. It’s sometimes called a durable medical power of attorney. The person you name to make decisions is called your healthcare proxy, healthcare agent, or healthcare surrogate. This document does not address end-of-life care, but instead grants legal permission to the person to make decisions for you.

The living will, advance directive and healthcare power of attorney work together to allow someone else to represent you during a medical crisis. These documents should be created by an experienced estate planning attorney and shared with the people you choose, so they may act on your behalf. Unfortunately, we never know when a medical crisis or accident will occur, so these documents are needed at any age and stage of life.

Reference: healthline (Sep. 1, 2022) “What Is a Living Will and Do I Need One?”

What Does a Living Will Do for Me?

During a medical crisis, families frequently must make decisions quickly regarding whether to withhold or provide life-sustaining treatments. A living will is a part of advance care planning. It’s a legal document that provides specific instructions on how to carry out your wishes to receive or decline such treatments when you otherwise can’t communicate those wishes yourself, explains, Forbes’ recent article entitled “How Does A Living Will Work?”

Your estate plan may already include a durable power of attorney for health care, which is a legal document that lets your designated agent or proxy make medical decisions for you if you become incapacitated. However, unlike that document, the instructions in a living will can be used only when the person named in the living will has no hope of recovery or cure.

A living will provides limited authority to an agent on behalf of the principal who’s no longer able to communicate their preferences to withhold or withdraw artificial means of life support or life-sustaining treatments. A living will should have your wishes noted for receiving or going without treatment when your condition isn’t expected to improve and treatment would extend your life for only a limited time.

A living will is designed to apply only in very limited situations when the principal who signed the document has an incurable or irreversible medical condition or conditions that will most likely result in the principal’s death within a short period of time—typically six months or fewer.

Life-sustaining treatments addressed in a living will may include:

  • Ventilators
  • Heart-lung machines
  • Nutrition via a feeding tube
  • Hydration via feeding tube or IV
  • Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or other extraordinary measures; and
  • Dialysis.

Living wills can also address issues, like pain management and palliative care. You may even include provisions such as “I would prefer to die at home” in a living will.

Provide as much information as you can to make certain that your proxy isn’t making the decision for you, but rather your wishes and words are moving through your proxy. The more information you can provide in your living will to your proxy to illustrate for them the type of care that you’d want to receive or decline, the better.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 18, 2022) “How Does A Living Will Work?”

How Can I Choose an Estate Planning Lawyer?

Only about a third of Americans have an estate plan, according to the article “Choosing an estate planning lawyer” from Senior Matters. The number of people with wills is decreasing, rather than increasing, despite the events of recent years. Estate planning is worth doing, for the peace of mind, the personal and financial protection it provides, not to mention leaving a legacy of caring about the future for the next generation.

Estate planning involves making end-of-life decisions, with an emphasis on both finances and health. Most people think of it as “who gets what,” which is accomplished largely through wills and trusts. For people who have amassed significant assets, this can be complex. An estate planning attorney makes it streamlined and will explain the implications of all aspects of the plan.

Estate planning includes gifting, generation skipping transfers, taxes, advance directives, power of attorney, health care proxies, living wills, naming an executor, organ donations, burial preferences, Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders and final wishes.

It is a highly personal process. This is why it’s important to find an attorney who is compassionate, as well as technically proficient. Estate planning attorneys tend to be caring individuals who chose this field of law because they sincerely wish to help others. They also know what happens when the planning is not done, because they also help children when their parents fail to do so.

Some people are reluctant to embark on estate planning, in part because they don’t wish to be reminded of their own mortality. Others are concerned about relatives with designs on their estate. However, not having a plan makes it more likely that relatives or others could challenge the estate and end up owning assets and provides protection.

When a person dies without an estate plan and assets subject to probate, their estate is considered to be “intestate.” Only the court will have any control over how the probate assets are distributed. The probate court will simply follow the laws of your state, which frequently are based on kinship. The exact details vary from state to state, and this is known as “intestate succession.”

The intestate laws may result in outcomes completely different than what you wished. An estranged spouse could end up owning everything, or a child with substance issues could inherit a substantial sum which will be gone in months. In most states, minor children may not receive inheritances, so trusts or custodial accounts are needed.

Estate planning is just as important for people of modest means as it is for wealthy people. If a senior owns their own home, the increase in property values could mean their estate is much bigger than they even realize.

Choosing an Attorney isn’t difficult. Ask friends and family for referrals, visit websites and find an estate planning attorney who shares your values, understands your family and feels like a good fit. Once your estate plan is in place, you’ll gain peace of mind.

Reference: Senior Matters (Aug. 17, 2022) “Choosing an estate planning lawyer”

Senior Second Marriages and Estate Planning

For seniors enjoying the romance and vitality of an unexpected late-in-life engagement, congratulations! Love is a wonderful thing, at any age. However, anyone remarrying for the second, or even third time, needs to address their estate planning as well as financial plans for the future. Pre-wedding planning can make a huge difference later in life, advises a recent article from Seniors Matter titled “Your senior parent is getting remarried—just don’t ignore key areas.”

A careful review of your will, powers of attorney, healthcare proxy, living will and any other advance directives should be made. If you have new dependents, your estate planning attorney will help you figure out how your children from a prior marriage can be protected, while caring for new members of the family. Failing to adjust your estate plan could easily result in disinheriting your own offspring.

Deciding how to address finances is best done before you say, “I do.” If one partner has more assets than the other, or if one has more debts, there will be many issues to resolve. Will the partner with more assets want to help resolve the debts, or should the debts be cleared up before the wedding? How will bills be paid? If both partners own homes, where will the newlyweds live?

Do you need a prenuptial agreement? This document is especially important when there are significant assets owned by one or both partners. One function of a prenup is to prevent one partner from challenging the other person’s will and trusts. There are a number of trusts designed to protect loved ones including the new spouse, among them the Qualified Terminable Interest Property Trust, known as a QTIP. This trust provides support for the new spouse. When the spouse dies, the entire trust is transferred to the persons named in the trust, usually children from a first marriage.

Most estate planning attorneys recommend two separate wills for people who wed later in life. This makes distribution of assets easier. Don’t neglect updating Powers of Attorney and any health care documents.

Before walking down the aisle, make an inventory, if you don’t already have one, of all accounts with designated beneficiaries. This should include life insurance policies, pensions, IRAs, 401(k)s, investment accounts and any other property with a beneficiary designation. Make sure that the accounts reflect your current circumstances.

Sooner or later, one or both spouses may need long-term care. Do either of you have long-term care insurance? If one of you needed to go into a nursing home or have skilled care at home, how would you pay for it? An estate planning attorney can help you create a plan for the future, which is necessary regardless of how healthy you may be right now.

Once you are married, Social Security needs to be updated with your new marital status and any name change. If a parent marries after full retirement age and their new spouse’s benefit is higher than their own, they may be able to increase their benefits to 50% of the new spouse’s benefits. If they were receiving divorced spousal benefits, those will end. The same goes for survivor benefits, if the person marries before age 60. If they’re disabled, they may still receive those benefits after age 60.

Setting up an appointment with an estate planning attorney a few months before a senior wedding is a good idea for all concerned. It provides an opportunity to review important legal and financial matters, while giving both spouses time to focus on the “business” side of love.

Reference: Seniors Matter (April 29, 2022) “Your senior parent is getting remarried—just don’t ignore key areas”

The Most Common Estate Planning Mistakes

Estate administration is the process of managing the estate when a loved one has passed. For the inexperienced executor, there are pitfalls to be avoided, warns the article “Top 5 Probate and Estate Administration Mistakes” from Long Island Press.

The biggest mistake is creating an estate plan from generic documents on the internet. Wills must meet many technical legal requirements to be valid. All wills are admitted to probate and the court scrutinizes wills carefully to be certain the wishes of the person who died (the testator) have been followed. A will created without the guidance of a skilled estate planning attorney is more likely to be found invalid and more easily challenged.

Neglecting to deal with Medicaid liens before distributing an inheritance can create huge financial problems for family members. Medicaid is required by law to attempt to clawback assets to recover the cost of care. Some states are more aggressive than others. Medicaid may attach a lien to any real estate owned by the Medicaid recipient and collect it at the time of their death.

The value of asset protection planning, including the use of a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT), in a timely manner, cannot be understated.

Leaving heirs and beneficiaries in the dark about the estate plan and distribution wishes often creates a sense of something bad being planned. Surprise revelations about the estate are only good in movies. In real life, this can lead to litigation and family fights. Litigation can take the form of a will contest, a trust contest, a contested accounting, or an action to remove the executor.

Talk with the family about your plans, so there is less tension created over the future of your estate.

Taxes can undermine your wishes, if your estate plan does not include tax planning. There are numerous methods used to minimize tax liabilities. However, they must be put into place in advance.

The executor has to file a final income tax return on behalf of the decedent for the year of death and also file an estate tax return. The executor is also responsible to obtain an estate tax identification number (EIN) from the IRS and open an estate bank account used to pay taxes and debts.

Will your executor, spouse or heirs be able to locate your critical information? If your legal, financial and online information is not organized, your executor may spend a long time digging through old paperwork, most of which is likely to be out of date and irrelevant. Spare your executor the time and emotional impact of wasted hours reviewing old records. No one needs your checking accounts from the 1970s!

Information on everything from assets, tax returns, funeral and burial arrangements, life insurance policies, Social Security and Medicaid or Medicare cards, deed for home and title for your cars, should all be organized to help your family find the information they need.

While you are alive, your family will need access to documents like your Power of Attorney, Health Care Power of Attorney, and Advance Health Care Directives.

By planning and making an effort in advance to manage your affairs, you enhance your legacy. Leaving a mess behind will be remembered, perhaps more so than organized documents.

Reference: Long Island Press (May 4, 2022) “Top 5 Probate and Estate Administration Mistakes”

What If You Don’t have a Will?

A will is a written document stating wishes and directions for dealing with the property you own after your death, also known as your “estate,” explains a recent article “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will” from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The COVID pandemic has reinforced the importance of having an estate plan in place. With almost one million deaths attributed to COVID to date, many families have learned this lesson in the hardest possible way.

When someone dies without a will, property is distributed according to their state’s intestacy laws. If your next of kin is someone you loathe, or even just dislike, they may become an heir, whether you or the rest of your family likes it or not. If you are part of an unmarried couple, your partner has no legal rights, unless you’ve created a will and an estate plan to provide for them.

In general, intestacy laws distribute property to a surviving spouse or certain descendants. A much better solution: speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Start by determining your goals and speaking with family members. You may be surprised to learn an adult child doesn’t need or want what you want to leave them. If you have a vacation home you want to leave to the next generation, ask to see if they want it.

A family meeting, attended by an objective person, like an estate planning attorney, may be helpful in clarifying your intentions and setting expectations for heirs. It may reveal new information about your family and change how you distribute your estate. A grandchild who has already picked out a Ferrari, for instance, might make you consider setting up a trust with distributions over time, so they can’t blow their inheritance in one purchase.

Determining who will be your executor is another important decision for your will. The executor is like the business manager of your estate after you have passed. They are a fiduciary, with a legal obligation to put the estate’s interest above their own. They need to be able to manage money, make sound decisions and equally important, stick to your wishes, even when your surviving loved ones have other opinions about “what you would have wanted.”

You’ll need to speak with this person to make sure they are willing to take on the task. If there is no one suitable or willing, your estate planning attorney will have some suggestions. Depending on the size of the estate, a bank or trust company may be able to serve as executor.

The will is just the first step. An estate plan includes planning for incapacity. With a Will, a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Living Will (also known as an Advance Directive), you and your loved ones will be better positioned to address the inevitable events of life.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 24, 2022) “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will”

What Happens If You Become Incapacitated?

If you became incapacitated and advance planning had been done, your family will have the legal documents you need. Just as importantly, they will know what your wishes are for incapacity and end-of-life care. If there was no planning, your loved ones will have to start with a lengthy application to the court to have someone named a guardian. They are a person who has legal authority to make medical decisions on your behalf.

Having a plan in place beforehand is always better, explains the article “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?” from Waterdown Daily Times.

Another reason to plan ahead: the court does not require the guardian to be a family member. Anyone can request a guardian to be appointed for another incapacitated individual, whether incapacity is a result of illness or injury. If no planning has been done, a guardianship must be established.

This is not an easy or inexpensive process. A petition must be filed, and the person in question must be legally declared incapacitated. In some cases, these filings are done secretly, and a guardianship maybe established without the person or their family even knowing it has occurred.

There are also many cases where one family member believes they are better suited for the task, and the family becomes embroiled in controversy about who should serve as the guardian.

The entire problem can be resolved by working with an experienced estate planning attorney long before incapacity becomes an issue. A comprehensive estate plan will include a plan for distribution of assets (Last Will and Testament), Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney and a Living Will.

These last two documents work together to describe your wishes for end-of-life care, medical treatment and any other medical issues you would want conveyed to healthcare providers.

Unfortunately, the pandemic revealed just how important it is to have these matters taken care of. If you did create these documents in the last few years, it would be wise to review them, since the people in key roles may have changed. While the idea of being on a respirator may have at one time been a clear and firm no, you may feel otherwise now.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney is an advance directive used to name a person, who becomes your “agent,” to make healthcare decisions. If there is no Healthcare Power of Attorney, physicians will ask a family member to make a decision. If no family can be reached in a timely manner, the court may be asked to appoint a legal guardian to be the decision-maker. In an urgent situation, the physician will have to make the decision, and it may not be the decision you wanted.

The Living Will explains your wishes for end-of-life care. For instance, if you become seriously ill and don’t want a feeding tube or artificial heart machine, you can say so in this document. You can even state who you do and do not wish to visit you when you are sick.

The best advice is to have a complete estate plan, including these vital documents, created by an experienced estate planning attorney. If you have an estate plan and have not reviewed it in the past three to five years, a review would be best for you and your loved ones.

Reference: Watertown Daily Times (April 14, 2022) “If I become incapacitated, who makes healthcare decisions?”

No Will? What Happens Now Can Be a Horror Show

Families who have lived through settling an estate without an estate plan will agree that the title of this article, “Preventing the Horrors of Dying Without a Will,” from Next Avenue, is no exaggeration. When the family is grieving is no time to be fighting, yet the absence of a will and an estate plan leads to this exact situation.

Why do people procrastinate having their wills and estate plans done?

Limited understanding about wealth transfers. People may think they do not have enough assets to require an estate plan. Their home, retirement funds or savings account may not be in the mega-millions, but this is actually more of a reason to have an estate plan.

Fear of mortality. We do not like to talk or think about death. However, talking about what will happen when you die or what may happen if you become incapacitated is very important. Planning so your children or other trusted family member or friends will be able to make decisions on your behalf or care for you alleviates what could otherwise turn into an expensive and emotionally disastrous time.

Perceived lack of benefits. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney who will put your interests first means you will have one less thing to worry about while you are living and towards the end of your life.

Estate planning documents contain the wishes and directives for your legacy and finances after you pass. They answer questions like:

  • Who should look after your minor children, if both primary caregivers die before the children reach adulthood?
  • If you become incapacitated, who should handle your financial affairs, who should be in charge of your healthcare and what kind of end-of-life care do you want?
  • What do you want to happen to your assets after you die? Your estate refers to your financial accounts, personal possessions, retirement funds, pensions and real estate.

Your estate plan includes a will, trusts (if appropriate), a durable financial power of attorney, a health care power of attorney or advanced directive and a living will. The will distributes your property and also names an executor, who is in charge of making sure the directions in the will are carried out.

If you become incapacitated by illness or injury, the POA gives agency to someone else to carry out your wishes while you are living. The living will provides an opportunity to express your wishes regarding end-of-life care.

There are many different reasons to put off having an estate plan, but they all end up in the same place: the potential to create family disruption, unnecessary expenses and stress. Show your family how much you love them, by overcoming your fears and preparing for the next generation. Meet with an estate planning attorney and prepare for the future.

Reference: Next Avenue (March 21, 2022) “Preventing the Horrors of Dying Without a Will”