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?”

I’ve Been Appointed My Aging Parents’ Power of Attorney but What Now?

A durable power of attorney is frequently signed by aging parents. However, sometimes the elderly can misunderstand exactly what that entails, especially when it comes to the authority of the person given decision-making powers.

The person appointed (called the agent or attorney-in-fact) is also typically an adult child. Nevertheless, he or she may be unaware of the appointment or does not grasp what is permitted and when it is permitted. It can be very confusing.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “Let’s Get Clear: What Does It Mean To Be Appointed Aging Parents’ Power Of Attorney?” provides the answers to three frequently asked questions of many heard from families.

Question: Can my father, who’s in charge of our family finances but now has dementia, revoke his DPOA that he signed years ago and name a child to take over managing his money when he needs help?

Answer: Perhaps. If Dad has dementia, he needs to be evaluated by a doctor to see if he still has the capacity to make financial decisions. This is a legal determination with help from doctors and particularly psychologists, who can perform the evaluation and give standardized test results. If the parent is found to have financial capacity, he is permitted to revoke the durable power of attorney at any time. However, if he doesn’t have mental capacity, he’s no longer legally capable of revoking the document.

Question: What if my mother is found to be incapacitated for financial decisions? If I’m the appointed agent on the DPOA, when can I use this authority?

Answer: Provided you’ve met any requirements detailed in the DPOA document itself, you can immediately take over financial authority. Some durable power of attorney documents require that a doctor or even two doctors must say the parent no longer has capacity before you can act. Some durable powers of attorney say the document is effective immediately. The agent’s authority is contained in the document.

Question: Am I allowed to keep my father from recklessly giving away money or making imprudent decisions with his wealth, if I’m the appointed agent on his DPOA?

Answer: Yes. Usually, the durable power of attorney gives the agent full authority over all financial matters.

Reference: Forbes (June 22, 2021) “Let’s Get Clear: What Does It Mean To Be Appointed Aging Parents’ Power Of Attorney?”

How can I Revoke an Irrevocable Trust?

Is there a way to get a house deed out of the trust?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I dissolve an irrevocable trust to get my house out?” says that prior to finalizing legal documents, it is important to know the purpose and consequences of the plan.

An experienced estate planning attorney will tell you there are a variety of trust types that are used to achieve different objectives.

There are revocable trusts that can be created to avoid probate, and others trusts placed in a will to provide for minor children or loved ones with special needs.

Irrevocable trusts are often created to shield assets, including the home, in the event long-term nursing care is required.

Conveying assets to an irrevocable trust typically starts the five-year “look back” period for Medicaid purposes, if the trust is restricted from using the assets for, or returning assets to, the individual who created the trust (known as the “grantor”).

When you transfer assets to a trust, control of the assets is given to another person (the ‘trustee”).

This arrangement may protect assets in the event long-term care is required. However it comes with the risk that the trustee may not always act how the grantor intended.

For instance, the grantor can’t independently sell the house owned by the trust or compel the trustee to purchase a replacement residence, which may cause a conflict between the grantor and trustee. Because the trust is irrevocable, it could be difficult and expensive to unwind.

In light of this, it’s important to designate a trustee who will work with and honor the wishes of the grantor.

An experienced estate planning attorney retained for estate and asset planning should provide clear, understandable and thoughtful advice, so the client has the information needed to make an informed decision how to proceed.

Reference: nj.com (April 6, 2021) “Can I dissolve an irrevocable trust to get my house out?”

Should I Create a Trust?

Most people know that a will instructs your executor regarding where to transfer your assets when you die. You may also want to consider a trust.

Nbcnew25.com’s recent article entitled “Elder law and estate planning: What you need to know” explains that a trust can give you peace of mind that your wishes will be carried out when you pass away. Your property won’t need to go through the probate process, if it’s in a trust. Your family can focus on the grieving process without having any problems with wrapping up your estate.

In addition, financial and health care powers of attorney should also be part of your estate plan. Ask an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney to help you draft these documents to save your loved ones the worry, if you must be moved into a nursing home and are unable to make decisions for yourself.

Having the correct documents in place before you or a loved one goes into a nursing home is extremely important. With a financial power of attorney, an elder law attorney could design a Medicaid plan for someone entering a nursing home to help protect their assets.

If the correct documents aren’t in place when a loved one enters a nursing home, it could create issues—one of which is the inability to protect their assets. In that case, you may also be required to appear in front of a judge to get permission for an elder law attorney to assist in protecting assets. That request could even be denied by the judge.

For a married couple, 100% of cash assets, plus the home, can be protected, and Medicaid would cover most of the nursing home cost. This is big because the cost of nursing homes can exceed be tens of thousands of dollars every month.

For married couples, in many instances, the income of the spouse who is entering the nursing home may be able to be transferred to the spouse who still lives at home. That’s important because the spouse at home may depend on the other spouse’s income to help make ends meet.

For singles, at least 60% to 70% of cash assets, plus the home, can be protected, so that Medicaid would cover most of the nursing home cost.

Moving a loved one into a nursing home can be stressful enough, without having to worry about the cost. Help yourself and your family, by preparing the proper documents ahead of time to eliminate some of the stress.

Working with an elder law attorney who specializes in Medicaid planning is a wise move. Don’t wait until it is too late.

Have things in order, so you or a loved one can avoid any unnecessary stress and keep the assets that you’ve acquired during your lifetime.

Reference: nbcnew25.com (April 30, 2021) “Elder law and estate planning: What you need to know”

How Do Special Needs Trusts Work?

A trust of any kind is a document that expresses your wishes while you are alive and after you have passed. The need for a dedicated trust for loved ones differs with the situations or issues of the family. Getting this wrong can lead to financial devastation, explains the article “Take special care with Special Needs trusts” from the Herald Bulletin.

A Special Needs Trust or supplemental trust provides protection and management for assets for specific beneficiaries. The trustee is in charge of the assets in the trust during the grantor’s life or at his death and distributes to the beneficiary as directed by the trust.

The purpose of a Special Needs or supplemental trust is to help people who receive government benefits because they are physically or mentally challenged or are chronically ill. Most of these benefits are means-tested. The rules about outside income are very strict. An inheritance would disqualify a Special Needs person from receiving these benefits, possibly putting them in dire circumstances.

The value of assets placed in a Special Needs trust does not count against the benefits. However, this area of the law is complex, and requires the help of an experienced elder law estate planning attorney. Mistakes could have lifelong consequences.

The trustee manages assets and disperses funds when needed, or at the direction of the trust. Selecting a trustee is extremely important, since the duties of a Special Needs trust could span decades. The person in charge must be familiar with the government programs and benefits and stay up to date with any changes that might impact the decisions of when to release funds.

These are just a few of the considerations for a trustee:

  • How should disbursements be made, balancing current needs and future longevity?
  • Does the request align with the rules of the trust and the assistance program requirements?
  • Will anyone else benefit from the expenditure, family members or the trustee? The trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the beneficiary, first and foremost.

Parents who leave life insurance, stocks, bonds, or cash to all children equally may be putting their Special Needs child in jeopardy. Well-meaning family members who wish to take care of their relative must be made aware of the risk of leaving assets to a Special Needs individual. These conversations should take place, no matter how awkward.

An experienced elder law estate planning attorney will be able to create a Special Needs trust that will work for the individual and for the family.

Reference: Herald Bulletin (March 13, 2021) “Take special care with Special Needs trusts”

What’s a Living Will?

Living wills can be used to detail the type of healthcare you do or don’t want to receive in end-of-life situations or if you become permanently incapacitated or unconscious. A living will tells your healthcare providers and your family what type of care you prefer in these situations, explains Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “How to Make a Living Will.” These instructions may address topics, such as resuscitation, life support and pain management. If you don’t want to be on life support in a vegetative state, you can state that in your living will.

A living will can be part of an advance healthcare directive that also includes a healthcare power of attorney. This lets your chosen healthcare proxy make medical decisions on your behalf, when you’re unable. A living will typically only applies to situations where you’re close to death or you’re permanently incapacitated; an advance directive can cover temporary incapacitation.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney or elder care lawyer about the technical aspects of how to make a living will. You should consider what to include. Every state is different, so your attorney will help you with the specifics. However,  you’ll generally need to leave instructions on the following:

  • Life-prolonging care, like blood transfusions, resuscitation, or use of a respirator;
  • Intravenous feeding if you are incapacitated and cannot feed yourself; and
  • Palliative care can be used to manage pain, if you decide to stop other treatments.

You will want to be as thorough and specific as possible with your wishes, so there is no confusion or stress for your family when or if the day arrives. You next want to communicate these wishes to your loved ones. You should also give copies of your living will to your doctor. If you’re drafting a living will as part of an advance healthcare directive, be certain that you get a copy to your healthcare proxy.

Review your living well regularly to make sure it’s still accurate because you may change your mind about the type of care you’d like to receive.

Ask your attorney to help you draft a living will along with a healthcare power of attorney, so all of the bases are covered as far as healthcare decision-making. When choosing a healthcare proxy, select a person on whom you can rely, to execute your wishes.

A living will can be an important component of an estate plan and preparing your family for your death.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Feb. 18, 2021) “How to Make a Living Will”

What Should I Do when my Spouse Dies?

Mourning the loss of a spouse can be one of the hardest experiences one can face. The emotional aspects of grief can also be difficult enough without having to concern yourself whether you’re financially unprepared.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Financial planning considerations after the loss of a spouse” says that when a spouse passes away, there can be many impacts to the financial picture. These can include changes in income, estate planning and dealing with IRA and insurance distributions. The first step, however, is understanding and quantifying the financial changes that may happen when your spouse dies.

Income Changes – Social Security. A drop in income is frequently an unforeseen reality for many surviving spouses, especially those who are on Social Security benefits. For retirees without dependents that have reached full retirement age, the surviving spouse will typically get the greater of their social security or their deceased spouse’s benefits – but not both. For example, let’s assume Dirk and Melinda are receiving $2,000 and $1,500 per month in Social Security benefits, respectively. In the event Dirk dies, Melinda will no longer receive her benefit and will only receive Dirk’s $2,000 benefit. That is a 42% reduction in total social security income received.

Social Security benefits typically start at 62, but a widow’s benefit can be available at age 60 for the survivor or at 50 if the survivor is disabled within seven years of the spouse’s death. Moreover, unmarried children under 18 (up to age 19 if attending elementary or secondary school full time) of a worker who passes away may also be eligible to get Social Security survivor benefits.

Income Changes – Pension Benefits. This is another type of income that may be decreased because of a spouse’s death. Those eligible to receive a pension often choose little or no survivorship benefits, which results in a sudden drop in income. Therefore, a single life annuity pension payment will end at the worker’s death leaving the survivor with no additional benefits. However, a 50% survivor option will pay 50% of the worker’s benefit to the surviving spouse at their death. A surviving spouse needs to understand what, if any pension benefits will continue and the financial effect of these changes.

Spousal IRA Benefits. Spouses must understand their options for inherited retirement accounts. A spousal beneficiary can roll the funds to their own IRA account, which lets the spousal beneficiary delay Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) until age 72. In this case, the spousal beneficiary’s life expectancy is used to calculate future RMDs. This may be appropriate for those over 59½, but spousal beneficiaries under that age that require retirement account distributions may subject themselves to early withdrawal penalties, including a tax and a 10% early withdrawal penalty, even on inherited funds. Spouses younger than 59½ may consider rolling the account to a beneficial or inherited IRA for more flexibility. In this case, RMDs will be taken annually based upon the life expectancy of the beneficiary, with distributions avoiding the 10% penalty. Distributions greater than the RMD may also be taken, while still avoiding early withdrawal penalties. Inherited IRAs can be a great tool for spousal beneficiaries who need income now to help support their lifestyle but have not reached 59½.

Updating the Estate Plan of the Surviving Spouse. It is easy to forget to review your estate plan drafted before your spouse passed away. Check on this with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Updating Financial Planning Projections. You don’t want to make any major decisions after the loss of a loved one, you can still review the numbers. Create a new financial plan to help provide clarity.

Reference: nj.com (Jan. 9, 2021) “Financial planning considerations after the loss of a spouse”

Get Estate Plan in Order, If Spouse Is Dying from a Terminal Illness

Thousands of people are still dying from COVID-19 complications every day, and others are dealing with life-threatening illnesses like cancer, heart attack and stroke. If your spouse is ill, the pain is intensified by the anticipated loss of your life partner.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Your Spouse Is Dying: 5 Ways To Get Your Estate In Order Now,” says that it’s frequently the attending physician who suggests that your spouse get his affairs in order.

Your spouse’s current prognosis and whether he or she’s at home or in a hospital will determine whether updates can be made to your estate plan. If it has been some time since the two of you last updated your estate plan, you should review the planning with your elder law attorney or estate planning attorney to be certain that you understand it and to see if there are any changes that can and should be made. There are five issues on which to focus your attention:

A Fiduciary Review. See who’s named in your estate planning documents to serve as executor and trustee of your spouse’s estate. They will have important roles after your spouse dies. Be sure you are comfortable with the selected fiduciaries, and they’re still a good fit. If your spouse has been sick, you’ve likely reviewed his or her health care proxy and power of attorney. If not, see who’s named in those documents as well.

An Asset Analysis. Determine the effect on your assets when your partner dies. Get an updated list of all your assets and see if there are assets that are held jointly which will automatically pass to you on your spouse’s death or if there are assets in your spouse’s name alone with no transfer on death beneficiary provided. See if any assets have been transferred to a trust. These answers will determine how easily you can access the assets after your spouse’s passing.

A Trust Assessment. Any assets that are currently in a trust or will pass into a trust at death will be controlled by the trust document. See who the beneficiaries are, how distributions are made and who will control the assets.

Probate Prep. If there’s property solely in your spouse’s name with no transfer on death beneficiary, those assets will pass according to his or her will. Review the will to make sure you understand it and whether probate will be needed to settle the estate.

Beneficiary Designation Check. Make certain that beneficiaries of your retirement accounts and life insurance policies are current.

If changes need to be made, an experienced elder law or estate planning attorney can counsel you on how to best do this.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 26, 2021) “Your Spouse Is Dying: 5 Ways To Get Your Estate In Order Now”

When Does a Power of Attorney Fail to Do Its Job?

A power of attorney is an essential component of a comprehensive estate plan. However, there are at least two important situations when the power of attorney (POA) will not be recognized and followed.

The IRS and Social Security Administration don’t recognize traditional POAs, explains Forbes’ recent article entitled “Two Times When Your Power Of Attorney Isn’t Going To Work.”

The IRS requires the use of its Form 2848, “Power of Attorney and Declaration of Representative” before it will let anyone act on your behalf. This form is required when an agent, even a relative, tries to handle your tax matters, when you are not able to so.

One of the requirements of Form 2848 is that it requires you to state the tax matters and years for which the agent is authorized to act. Form 2848 also requires you to list the type of tax, the IRS form number and the year or periods involved. That is different from a traditional POA to handle financial matters, which frequently has a blanket statement allowing the agent to take a broad range of actions on your behalf in certain matters.

For a married couple that files joint tax returns, each spouse must also separately complete and sign a form. They cannot simply execute a joint form.

Technically, the IRS could accept other POAs, as indicated by the instructions to Form 2848. However, as you can see a POA must meet all the IRS’ requirements to be accepted.

The Social Security Administration is much the same. When you need someone to manage your Social Security benefits, you contact the Social Security Administration and make an advance designation of a representative payee.

This lets you name one or more people to manage your Social Security benefits. The Social Security Administration then is required to work with the named individual or individuals, in most cases.

A person who already is receiving Social Security benefits may name an advance designee at any time. A first-time claimer can also name the designee during the claiming process.

This designee can be changed at any time.

If you do not name any representatives, the Social Security Administration will designate a representative payee on your behalf, if it determines that you need help managing your money. Relatives or friends can apply to be representative payees, or the Social Security Administration can select someone.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 28, 2021) “Two Times When Your Power of Attorney Isn’t Going to Work”

Every Adult Needs a Will and a Health Care Power of Attorney
An concept Image of a power of attorney

Every Adult Needs a Will and a Health Care Power of Attorney

A serious illness can happen at any age, but just 18% of those 55 and older have a living will, power of attorney for health care and a last will and testament, according to a 2019 study by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.

AZ Central’s recent article entitled “What to know about wills and health care power of attorney in Arizona” says that every adult should have these documents, including young professionals, single people and those without children.

These documents make it easier for an individual and their family during a stressful time. They make your wishes clear.

They also help give directions to family members and allow you to name a person you believe is the most responsible and able to fulfill your wishes.

Note that a power of attorney, living will and last will each has its own purpose.

A power of attorney for health care lets your named agent make medical decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated, while you are still alive. Without a health care power of attorney or living will, it can complicate and delay matters.

A living will or “advance directive” is used when a person needs end-of-life care. This document can provide instructions on how the person wants to be treated, like not wanting a feeding tube or wanting as much medical help as possible.

In contrast, a last will and testament states what happens to a person’s estate or assets after they pass away. A last will can also designate a guardian for minor children.

A last will can state who will be in charge of the person’s estate, known as an executor or a personal representative.

You should name a primary representative and an alternate to serve and provide copies of the documents to the people chosen for these roles.

Reference: AZ Central (Jan. 14, 2021) “What to know about wills and health care power of attorney in Arizona”