What Should I Know about Guardianships?

Guardianships – also known as conservatorships – are drastic and invasive. They strip away control adults otherwise exercise over their own lives and establish someone else as the decision-maker.  They require a rigorous showing of legal incapacity and approval by a judge. In many jurisdictions, parties must establish a specific need for guardianship and demonstrate that other alternatives considered would not adequately protect the individual.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort – Consider These Less Draconian Options First” says that guardianships should never be undertaken lightly. Once established, they can be extremely difficult to undo. Therefore, other options should always be considered first.

Guardianships ensure that those who are unable to handle their own affairs aren’t exploited or injured. There are circumstances when a guardianship may be the best – or only – choice. For example, an elderly gentleman with dementia may have lacked the planning to make adequate provisions in his will or trust for management of his affairs. Without a plan for oversight of his assets, he could end up jeopardizing the estate he intended to pass on to his family. In that case, the heirs may look to have a court-appointed guardian appointed who will ensure that their father or grandfather doesn’t sign away his estate or compromise his physical well-being.

Transparency is important. Before it becomes necessary for a guardian to be appointed to handle your physical or financial decisions, consider whom you’d trust to act in that capacity and put it in writing.

It also informs others that, if a guardian is needed, this person is the one you’d like to see serve in that capacity.

A one-page directive will make your wishes clear and keep this important decision from a judge who will know nothing about you or your priorities or your specific circumstances.

In addition, you should delegate a second person now to support you in the future. It’s preferable that this is someone younger whom you trust. This individual will bring a fresh perspective to the situation. They should also possess a sound understanding of money management.

If you don’t consider these things now, the state will make the decision for you after you no longer can make such decisions for yourself.

Talk with an experienced elder law attorney and create the documents now that will save your loved ones from having to seek guardianship for you in the future.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 7, 2022) “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort – Consider These Less Draconian Options First”

Understanding the Issues of Elder Law

The legal needs of many older Americans go beyond basic legal services. They are also all intertwined. In addition to understanding the legal issues and complications that older Americans face, elder law attorneys must also understand the surrounding personal concerns of their clients, such as health, financial and family issues, and how those affect their clients’ legal issues.

Recently Heard’s article entitled “What You Need to Know About Elder Law” explains that other specific areas of expertise include the following:

  • End of life planning could extend to planning your health care support system as you age, signing a power of attorney, establishing a living will and other issues surrounding end of life care.
  • Financial issues frequently entails questions about retirement and financial planning, housing financing, income and estate tax planning and gift tax issues.
  • Long term care can include planning for asset protection, insurance for in-home care or assistance with activities of daily living, Medicare planning, insurance, veterans’ benefits and other issues.
  • Residents’ rights issues may include claims or complaints you bring while a patient in a nursing home or long term care facility.
  • Workplace discrimination issues stem, from the fact that older Americans sometimes face age and disability discrimination in the workplace.
  • Guardianship issues might include guardianship avoidance, planning wills and trusts, planning for the future of a special needs child, probate court and other issues surrounding minor or adult children.
  • Landlord-tenant law may mean handling disputes with landlords, contesting an eviction, dealing with foreclosure issues, rent increases and more.
  • Abuse, neglect, and fraud. These elder law attorneys specialize in cases where an older client is being victimized.

An elder law attorney can be a great partner for you as you plan out the legal and financial aspects of the next stage of your life-or the life of a loved one. Speak to one today.

Reference: Recently Heard (June 23, 2022) “What You Need to Know About Elder Law”

Estate Planning Tips for Solo Seniors

The people who typically think the most about estate planning are those in a traditional nuclear family unit, with spouses, adult children, grandchildren and a clear idea of how they want to pass along assets and who can be trusted to carry out their wishes. It’s easier to plan ahead, reports a recent article titled “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own” from The Sentinel, when the right person to put in charge is easy to identify.

When more and more families do not fall into the traditional nuclear family unit, how should they proceed with estate planning?

This can be a challenging scenario, especially if the person is not married and has no children. It’s hard to know who to name for important roles, like who will take charge if the person becomes ill or dies.

Some single people may think it doesn’t matter, because they don’t care about who inherits their possessions. However, estate planning is not just about distributing property. Planning for incapacity may be the most important part of estate planning—making legally enforceable decisions about medical care, end-of-life care and managing the business aspect of your life if you are incapacitated.

Two of the most important documents for a person who cannot speak for themselves are a Financial Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These are the critical documents giving the person you designate the ability to manage your affairs and be involved in your medical care.

Without them, someone will need to take over for you. Who will it be? The process begins in the court, with a legal proceeding called guardianship. There are any number of reasons to avoid this. First, it takes a long time and any actions or decisions requiring a legal guardian will not be made with any speed. Second, guardianships are expensive. The process of having a guardian named and the fees paid to the guardian will be paid by you, whether you are conscious or not. While many people who act as guardians for others are trustworthy and kind-hearted, there are many horror stories—including several true stories made into movies—where guardians are more focused on enriching themselves than their ward’s best interests.

Guardianship can be easily avoided. Meeting with an estate planning attorney to prepare your last will and testament, Power of Attorney and Power of Health Care Attorney gives you control over who will be in charge of your life if you are incapacitated. Having these documents properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney ensures that you can be admitted to a hospital or facility offering the care you need, your bills will be paid and if your situation requires filing for long-term care benefits or disability, someone can do it for you.

If you don’t have a spouse or children, you probably have a healthy network of friends and extended family members you trust and are your “family by choice.” If you don’t feel these people are trustworthy or capable, think further afield—someone from your community, a neighbor who you respect and trust, etc.

If possible, name a few people in succession (your estate planning attorney will know how to do this) so if one person cannot serve, then there will be a next-in-line to help.

The next step is to speak with these individuals and explain what you are asking them to do. They need to be comfortable with the responsibility you’re asking them to undertake. You’ll also want to tell them your wishes, perhaps drafting a letter of intent, so they will know what to do in different circumstances. Make sure they know where these documents are located, so they can find them easily.

Once your estate plan is in place, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, knowing the future is taken care of.

Reference: The Sentinel (June 17, 2022) “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own”

When Should I Consult with an Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law attorneys assist seniors or their family caregivers with legal issues and planning that related to the aging process. These attorneys frequently help with tax planning, disability planning, probate and administration of an estate, nursing home placement and many other legal issues.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Hiring an Elder Law Attorney,” explains that elder law attorneys are specialists who work with seniors or caregivers of aging family members on legal matters that older adults face as they age. Many specialize in Medicaid planning to help protect a person’s financial assets, when they have Alzheimer’s disease or another debilitating illness that may require long-term care. They can also usually draft estate documents, including a durable power of attorney for health and medical needs, and even a trust for an adult child with special needs.

As you get older, there are legal issues you, your spouse or your family caregivers face. These issues can also change. For instance, you should have powers of attorney for financial and health needs, in case you or your spouse become incapacitated. You might also need an elder law attorney to help transfer assets, if you or your spouse move into a nursing home to avoid spending your life savings on long-term care.

Elder law attorneys can help with a long list of legal matters seniors frequently face, including the following:

  • Preservation and transfer of assets
  • Accessing health care in a nursing home or other managed care environment and long-term care placements
  • Estate and disability planning
  • Medicare, Social Security and disability claims and appeals
  • Supplemental insurance and long-term health insurance claims and appeals
  • Elder abuse and fraud recovery
  • Conservatorships and guardianships
  • Housing discrimination and home equity conversions
  • Health and mental health law.

Reference: Forbes (Oct. 4, 2021) “Hiring an Elder Law Attorney”

Estate Planning for Special Needs Children

Part of providing comprehensive estate planning for families includes being prepared to address the needs of family members with special needs. Some of the tools used are trusts, guardianship and tax planning, according to the article “How to Help Clients With Special Needs Children” from Accounting Web. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan for the future that addresses both legal and financial protections.

A survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that 12.8 percent of children in our country have special health care needs, while 20 percent of all American households include a child with special needs. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) estimates that 26% of adults in America have some type of disability. In other words, some 61 million Americans have some kind of disability.

Providing for a child with special needs can be expensive, depending upon the severity of the disability. The first step for families is to have a special needs trust created through an estate planning attorney with experience in this area. The goal is to have money for the support and care of the child available, but for it not to be in the child’s name. While there are benefits available to the child through the federal government, almost all programs are means-tested, that is, the child or adult with special needs may not have assets of their own.

For many parents, a good option is a substantial life insurance policy, with the beneficiary of the policy being the special needs trust. Depending on the family’s situation, a “second to die” policy may make sense. Both parents are listed as the insured, but the policy does not pay until both parents have passed. Premiums may be lower because of this option.

It is imperative for parents of a child with special needs to have their will created to direct their assets to go to the special needs trust and not to the child directly. This is done to protect the child’s eligibility to receive government benefits.

Parents of a child with special needs also need to consider who will care for their child after they have died. A guardian needs to be named as early as possible in the child’s life, in case something should occur to the parents. The guardianship may end at age 18 for most children, but for an individual with special needs, more protection is needed. The guardian and their role need to be spelled out in documents. It is a grave mistake for parents to assume a family member or sibling will care for their child with special needs. The need to prepare for guardianship cannot be overstated.

The special needs trust will also require a trustee and a secondary trustee, if at some point the primary trustee cannot or does not want to serve.

It may seem easier to name the same person as the trustee and the guardian, but this could lead to difficult situations. A better way to go is to have one person paying the bills and keeping an eye on costs and a second person taking care of the individual.

Planning for the child’s long-term care needs to be done as soon as possible. A special needs trust should be established and funded early on, wills need to be created and/or updated, and qualified professionals become part of the family’s care for their loved one.

Having a child with special needs is a different kind of parenting. A commonly used analogy is for a person who expected to be taking a trip to Paris but finds themselves in Holland. The trip is not what they expected, but still a wonderful and rewarding experience.

Reference: Accounting Web (Sep. 13, 2021) “How to Help Clients With Special Needs Children”

What Is a Guardianship?

The guardianship process is started by a petition being filed with the court. For a person to be deemed incapacitated by the court, the petitioner must provide medical evidence of the individual’s incapacity.

The Phoenix Reporter’s recent article entitled “What is a guardianship?” explains that to be found incapacitated, the court must determine that the individual’s ability to receive and evaluate information effectively, and to communicate decisions, is impaired to such a level that he or she is partially or totally unable to manage his financial resources or to meet the essential requirements for his physical health and safety.

After the petition is filed, the individual alleged to be incapacitated must be given written notice of the action and told of their right to counsel. A formal hearing is held, and the alleged incapacitated person has a right to be at the hearing and is typically required to be at the hearing (unless a physician excuses him or her because their welfare could be harmed by attending). During the hearing, evidence is presented to demonstrate that the person is incapacitated, that the guardianship is necessary and that there’s not a less restrictive alternative. The court will render a decision on whether the appointment of the guardian is necessary and, if appropriate, will adjudicate the individual an incapacitated person. The guardian is then empowered to make decisions regarding the incapacitated person’s care and financial management.

The court can decide to appoint a guardian of the person and/or a guardian of the estate. The guardian of the person makes decisions on where the individual will live, his or her safety and physical wellbeing, along with his or her daily health care. In contrast, the guardian of the estate manages the finances and property of the person.

Any qualified individual, corporate fiduciary, non-profit corporation, or county agency may serve as guardian. The guardian has ongoing oversight by the court and must file annual reports. However, when first appointed as the guardian of the estate, he or she must file an inventory of the incapacitated person’s assets.

A guardianship should be a last resort and only used where necessary and where there are no less restrictive alternatives. Most guardianships can be avoided with proper estate planning.

A guardianship is a more restrictive tool in dealing with incapacity than a power of attorney. A power of attorney gives you more flexibility, and there’s usually no involvement by the court. A durable power of attorney is one of the most important estate planning documents you can have and can prevent the need for a guardianship in the event of incapacity. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney or elder law attorney for assistance.

Reference: The Phoenix Reporter (Sep. 1, 2021) “What is a guardianship?”

Do I Qualify as an Eligible Designated Beneficiary under the SECURE Act?

An eligible designated beneficiary (EDB) is a person included in a unique classification of retirement account beneficiaries. A person may be classified as an EDB, if they are classified as fitting into one of five categories of individuals identified in the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act. The bill passed in December 2019 and is effective for all inherited retirement accounts, as of the first of this year.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Eligible Designated Beneficiary” explains that these people get special treatment and greater flexibility to withdraw funds from their inherited accounts than other beneficiaries.

With the SECURE Act, there are now three types of beneficiaries. It is based on the individual’s connection to the original account owner, the beneficiary’s age, and his or her status as either an individual or a non-person entity. However, an EDB is always an individual. On the other hand, an EDB can’t be a trust, an estate, or a charity, which are considered not designated beneficiaries. There are five categories of individuals included in the EDB classification. These are detailed below.

In most instances, except for the exceptions below, an EDB must withdraw the balance from the inherited IRA account over the beneficiary’s life expectancy. There is optional special treatment allowed only for surviving spouses, which is explained below. When a minor child reaches the age of majority, he or she is no longer considered to be an EDB, and the 10-year rule concerning withdrawal requirements for a designated beneficiary applies.

Here are the five categories of EDBs.

Owner’s surviving spouse. Surviving spouses get special treatment, which lets them step into the shoes of the owner and withdraw the balance from the IRA over the original owner’s life expectancy. As another option, they can roll an inherited IRA into their own IRA and take withdrawals at the point when they’d normally take their own required minimum distributions (RMDs).

Owner’s minor child. A child who isn’t yet 18 can make withdrawals from an inherited retirement account using their own life expectancy. However, when he or she turns 18, the 10-year rule for designated beneficiaries (who aren’t EDBs) applies. At that point, the child would have until December 31 of the 10th year after their 18th birthday to withdraw all funds from the inherited retirement account. A deceased retirement account owner’s minor child can get an extension, up until age 26, for the start of the 10-year rule, if he or she is pursuing a specified course of education.

An individual who is disabled. The tax code says that an individual is considered to be disabled if he or she is “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or to be of long continued and indefinite duration.” A disabled person who inherits a retirement account can use their own life expectancy to calculate RMDs.

An individual who is chronically ill. The tax code states that “the term ‘chronically ill individual’ means any individual who has been certified by a licensed healthcare practitioner as—

  • being unable to perform (without substantial assistance from another individual) at least two activities of daily living for a period of at least 90 days, due to a loss of functional capacity,
  • having a level of disability similar (as determined under regulations prescribed by the Secretary in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services) to the level of disability described in clause (i), or
  • requiring substantial supervision to protect such individual from threats to health and safety due to severe cognitive impairment.”

A chronically ill individual who inherits a retirement account can use their own life expectancy to determine the RMDs.

Any other person who’s less than 10 years younger than the decedent. This is a catch-all that includes certain friends and siblings (depending on age), who are identified as beneficiaries of a retirement account. This also excludes most adult children (who aren’t disabled or chronically ill) from the five categories of EDBs. A person in this category who inherits a retirement account is permitted to use their own life expectancy to calculate RMDs.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2020) “Eligible Designated Beneficiary” 

How Does Planning for a Special Needs Child Work?

Funding a Special Needs Trust is just the start of the planning process for families with a family member who has special needs. Strategically planning how to fund the trust, so the parents and child’s needs are met, is as important as the creation of the SNT, says the article “Funding Strategies for Special Needs Trusts” from Advisor Perspectives. Parents need to be mindful of the stability and security of their own financial planning, which is usually challenging.

Parents should keep careful records of their expenses for their child now and project those expenses into the future. Consider what expenses may not be covered by government programs. You should also evaluate the child’s overall health, medical conditions that may require special treatment and the possibility that government resources may not be available. This will provide a clear picture of the child’s needs and how much money will be needed for the SNT.

Ultimately, how much money can be put into the SNT, depends upon the parent’s ability to fund it.

In some cases, it may not be realistic to count on a remaining portion of the parent’s estate to fund the SNT. The parents may need the funds for their own retirement or long-term care. It is possible to fund the trust during the parent’s lifetime, but many SNTs are funded after the parents pass away. Most families care for their child with special needs while they are living. The trust is for when they are gone.

The asset mix to fund the SNT for most families is a combination of retirement assets, non-retirement assets and the family home. The parents need to understand the tax implications of the assets at the time of distribution. An estate planning attorney with experience in SNTs can help with this. The SECURE Act tax law changes no longer allow inherited IRAs to be stretched based on the child’s life expectancy, but a person with a disability may be able to stretch an inherited retirement asset.

Whole or permanent life insurance that insures the parents, allows the creation of an asset on a leveraged basis that provides tax-free death proceeds.

Since the person with a disability will typically have their assets in an SNT, a trust with the correct language—“see-through”—will be able to stretch the assets, which may be more tax efficient, depending on the individual’s income needs.

Revocable SNTs become irrevocable upon the death of both parents. Irrevocable trusts are tax-paying entities and are taxed at a higher rate. Investing assets must be managed very carefully in an irrevocable trust to achieve the maximum tax efficiency.

It takes a village to plan for the secure future of a person with a disability. An experienced elder law attorney will work closely with the parents, their financial advisor and their accountant.

Reference: Advisor Perspectives (April 29, 2020) “Funding Strategies for Special Needs Trusts”

Is Long-Term Care Insurance Really a Good Idea?

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Is Long-Term Care Insurance Right For You?” says that a big drawback for many, is the fact that LTCI is expensive. However, think about the costs of long-term care. For example, the current median annual cost for assisted living is $43,539, and for a private room in a nursing home, it’s more than $92,000.

Another issue is that there’s no way to accurately determine if in fact you’ll even need long-term care. Much of it depends on your own health and family history. However, planning for the possibility is key.

Remember that Medicare and other types of health insurance don’t cover most of the cost of long-term care—what are known as “activities of daily living,” like bathing, dressing, eating, using the bathroom and moving. Medicare will only pay for medically necessary skilled nursing and home care, such as giving shots and changing dressings and not assisted-living costs, like bathing and eating. Supplemental insurance policies generally don’t pay for this type of care.

Those with a low net worth might qualify for long-term care provided under Medicaid.

Shop around, because policies and prices are different. Check the policy terms and be sure you understand:

  • The things that are covered, such as skilled nursing, custodial care, and assisted living
  • If Alzheimer’s disease is covered as it’s a leading reason for needing long-term care
  • If there are any limitations on pre-existing conditions.
  • The maximum payouts
  • If the payments are adjusted for inflation
  • The lag time until benefits begin
  • How long benefits will last
  • If there’s a waiver of premium benefit, which suspends premiums when you are collecting long-term care benefits
  • If there’s a non-forfeiture benefit, which offers limited coverage even if you cancel the policy
  • If the current premiums are guaranteed in future years, or if there are limits on future increases
  • How many times rates have increased in the past 10 years
  • If you purchase a group policy through an employer, see if it is portable (if you can take it with you if you change jobs).

Typically, when you are between 50 to 65 is the most cost-effective time to buy LTCI, if you’re in good health. The younger you buy, the lower the cost. However, you will be paying premiums longer. Premiums usually increase as you get older and less healthy. There’s a possibility that you’ll be denied coverage, if your health becomes poor. Therefore, while it’s not inexpensive, buying LTCI sooner rather than later may be the best move.

Reference: Forbes (April 17, 2020) “Is Long-Term Care Insurance Right For You?”