What are Alternatives to Guardianship?

Guardianships are drastic and very invasive. They strip individuals of their legal autonomy and establish the guardian as the sole decision maker. To become a guardian requires strong evidence of legal incapacity, and approval by a judge, explains an article titled “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort–Consider These Less Draconian Options First” from Kiplinger. They should not be undertaken unless there is a serious need to do so. Once they’re in place, guardianships are difficult to undo.

If an elderly person with dementia failed to make provisions durable powers of attorney for health care and for financial matters before becoming ill, a guardianship may be the only ways to protect the person and their estate. There are also instances where an aging parent is unable to care for themselves properly but refuses any help from family members.

Another scenario is an aging grandparent who plans to leave funds for minor beneficiaries. Their parents will need to seek guardianships, so they can manage the money until their children reach the age of majority.

Laws vary from state to state, so if you might need to address this situation, you’ll need to speak with an estate planning attorney in the elderly parent or family member’s state of residence. For the most part, each state requires less restrictive alternatives to be attempted before guardianship proceedings are begun.

Alternatives to guardianship include limited guardianship, focused on specific aspect of the person’s life. This can be established to manage the person’s finances only, or to manage only their medical and health care decisions. Limited guardianships need to be approved by a court and require evidence of incapacity.

Powers of attorney can be established for medical or financial decisions. This is far less burdensome to achieve and equally less restrictive. A Healthcare Power of Attorney will allow a family member to be involved with medical care, while the Durable General Power of Attorney is used to manage a person’s personal financial affairs.

Some families take the step of making a family member a joint owner on a bank, home, or an investment account. This sounds like a neat and simple solution, but assets are vulnerable if the co-owner has any creditor issues or risk exposure. A joint owner also doesn’t have the same fiduciary responsibility as a POA.

An assisted decision-making agreement creates a surrogate decision-maker who can see the incapacitated person’s financial transactions. The bank is notified of the arrangement and alerts the surrogate when it sees a potentially suspicious or unusual transaction. This doesn’t completely replace the primary account holder’s authority. However, it does create a limited means of preventing exploitation or fraud. The bank is put on notice and required to alert a second person before completing potentially fraudulent transactions.

Trusts can also be used to protect an incapacitated person. They can be used to manage assets, with a contingent trustee. For an elderly person, a co-trustee can step in if the grantor loses the capacity to make good decisions.

Planning in advance is the best solution for incapacity. Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect loved ones from having to take draconian actions to protect your best interests.

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

Does a Trust Protect You From a Lawsuit?
A gavel and a name plate with the engraving Lawsuit

Does a Trust Protect You From a Lawsuit?

If you have a trust, plan to create one or are the beneficiary of one, you’ll want to understand whether or not a trust can be sued. It’s not a simple yes/no, according to a recent article titled “Estate Planning: Can You Sue a Trust?” from Yahoo! Finance. For instance, a trust generally cannot be sued, but a trustee can.

Understanding when a lawsuit can be brought against a trust should be considered when creating an estate plan, a good reason to work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

A trust is a legal entity used to hold and manage assets on behalf of one or more beneficiaries. A trustee can be a person or business entity responsible for managing the trust and the assets it holds. Trusts can be revocable, meaning the person who created them (the grantor) can make changes, or irrevocable, meaning transfer of assets is permanent (for the most part).

Trusts are used to manage assets while the grantor is living and after they have died. There are many different types of trusts, from a Special Needs Trust (SNT) used to manage assets for a disabled person, or a CRT (Charitable Remainder Trust) used for charitable giving.

A trust cannot always protect the grantor or beneficiaries from litigation. If a person has debt and creditors want to be paid, they can sue a revocable trust, as you have not given up much in the way of control using this type of trust—you still directly own the assets in the trust!

Irrevocable trusts provide more protection. Once assets are in the trust, the grantor has given up control of the assets. However, if the trust was created mainly to protect assets from creditors, a court could determine the trust was created fraudulently, and rule against the grantor, leaving all of the assets in the trust vulnerable to creditor lawsuits.

Can you sue a trust directly? Generally, no, but you can sue the trustee of a trust. You can also sue beneficiaries of a trust.

Here’s an example. If you transfer a car into a revocable living trust and cause an accident leading to the death or serious injury of another driver, the driver or their family could sue the trust for damages indirectly, by suing you as the trustee.

Trustees are bound as fiduciaries to manage the trust assets as directed by the grantor and for the best interest of the beneficiaries. The trustee can be sued if someone, typically a beneficiary, believes the trustee is not carrying out their duties. A beneficiary might sue a trustee, if they were supposed to receive a certain amount of money at a specific time, but the trustee has not distributed the funds. This is known as a “breach of fiduciary duty.”

Trustees are also prevented from self-dealing or using trust assets for their own benefit. If a beneficiary believes a trustee is taking money from the trust for their own benefit, they can sue the trustee.

A trust can also be “contested,” which is different from suing. Contesting a trust occurs when someone believes the grantor was coerced or subjected to undue influence in creating the trust. It also happens if someone believes the trust or amendments to the trust were the result of elder financial abuse, or if it appears trust documents have been forged or fraudulently altered.

Before a trust can be contested, there needs to be a valid suspicion the trust is somehow in violation of your state’s estate planning laws. You also have to have legal standing to bring a claim. The court may or may not side with you, so there are no guarantees.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Nov. 17, 2021) “Estate Planning: Can You Sue a Trust?”