Category: Capacity

How the Guardianship Process Works

How the Guardianship Process Works

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 the guardianship process works, and whether it may be the right move for your family. If you would like to learn more about guardianships, please visit our previous posts.

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

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Advance Directives are Critical to your Planning

Advance Directives are Critical to your Planning

Advance directives address the type of healthcare and medical treatment you’d want if you become incapacitated. MarketWatch’s recent article entitled “What happens if you’re incapacitated? How to get your advance directives in order” says if you don’t make these decisions now—and complete the necessary forms to state your wishes—someone else will make the decisions for you down the road. Advance directives are critical to your planning.

Advance directives typically consist of a living will and a power of attorney for healthcare. Each state has its own statutory advance directive form. Because these state forms are legal documents, the wording can be pretty formal. People will sometimes forget they’ve filled out the forms. They also forget where they put them.

After completing the proper forms, you must get them to your medical providers, so they know whether to resuscitate you during a medical emergency or administer artificial feeding or hydration.

Make sure you have a discussion with your physician, family and close friends about your values, goals and fears concerning advance care planning.

You should tell them what forms of medical intervention you’d find acceptable and unacceptable—and what level of life-sustaining treatment you’d like if you’re deemed permanently unconscious. That may include considering these types of situations:

  • If I am unconscious, in a coma, or in a vegetative state and there is little or no chance of recovery
  • If I have permanent, severe brain damage that makes me unable to recognize my family or friends (for example, severe dementia)
  • If I need to use a breathing machine and be in bed for the rest of my life
  • If I have a condition that will make me die very soon, even with life-sustaining treatments
  • If I have pain or other severe symptoms that cause suffering and can’t be relieved
  • If I have a permanent condition where other people must help me with my daily needs (for example, eating, bathing, toileting).

When sharing your end-of-life wishes with your physician, he or she may enter your comments into your electronic health record. That way any other healthcare provider with access to those records (such as a hospital system) can retrieve them. Advance directives are critical to your planning. Work closely with your estate planning attorney, who will have the experience to help you navigate these decisions. If you would like to learn more about advance directives, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: MarketWatch (Oct. 14, 2022) “What happens if you’re incapacitated? How to get your advance directives in order.”

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How to Manage Aging Parents Finances

How to Manage Aging Parents Finances

A day will come when age begins to catch up with your parents and they will need help with their finances. This begs the question of how to manage your aging parents finances. Even if your parents don’t want to feel dependent, when you think they need your assistance, you can approach the issue with sensitivity and extend your support for the management of their finances, says Real Daily’s recent article entitled “5 Tips to Manage an Aging Parent’s Finances.” Here are some tips:

  1. Start the conversation early. Your parents may not need your help with the handling of their financial matters right away. However, it is smart to begin the conversation early. Approach the issue of who will manage the financial responsibilities when they’re no longer able to do it. Parents should select a trusted family member by providing their advance written consent. This will let you to talk about your parents’ financial issues with financial advisors, doctors and Medicare representatives and carry out timely financial planning.
  2. Create a list of all pertinent legal and financial documents. Prepare a list of your parents’ important contacts, bank account details and locations of any stored documents, like wills, property deeds, insurance policies and birth certificates. Make certain all information and documentation is accurate and up to date. If information needs to be modified because of a change of circumstances, this is time to apprise them of it and help them do what’s needed.
  3. Consider executing a power of attorney. A competent adult can sign a power of attorney to authorize another person to make decisions on their behalf. A power of attorney for a specific purpose may cover medical, financial, or other decisions, and it may be designed to give limited or more sweeping powers. When your parents sign a power of attorney with you named as their attorney in fact, it will legally empower you to make key decisions when they can’t. An elder law attorney can help you draft an appropriate power of attorney according to your situation.
  4. Document your actions and keep others in the know. Transparent communication will help you avoid misunderstandings or controversy within your family. Keep your parents, siblings and any other loved ones involved with your family informed about your actions. No matter how noble your intentions may be, if others are kept in the dark, it can raise questions about your motives. Managing the finances of aging parents is a lot of work, and you can ask for the support of family members or at least keep the lines of communication open.
  5. Don’ comingle your finances with your parents’ plans. While it may look to be a convenient or cost-effective thing to do, it’s never a good idea to combine your parents’ finances with your own. Keep them separate. Using your parents’ money for your purposes or your own money to help them out is usually a slippery slope that should be avoided. Don’t forget about your own financial goals and retirement savings while you focus on helping your parents.

Take the time to sit down with your parents and their estate planning attorney to have an understanding of their existing planning and how to manage your aging parents finances. If you are interested in learning more about managing the finances or care of your elderly parents, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Real Daily (Sep. 9, 2022) “5 Tips to Manage an Aging Parent’s Finances”

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Grounds for Contesting a Will

Grounds for Contesting a Will

As a beneficiary of a will, if you don’t agree with how the assets are being distributed, you may have grounds for contesting the will. MSN’s recent article entitled “Contesting a Will? You Might Not Need a Lawyer” says to do this you must have a legitimate legal reason to challenge the will, such as one of the most common arguments:

  • Lack of mental capacity. If the person making the will (the “testator”) wasn’t “of sound mind,” he or she may not understand their decisions. The testator must be able to understand what they own, who their natural heirs are and what they are giving and to whom.
  • Fraud, undue influence, or forgery. Some people are tricked into signing a will, are forced to create a will under duress, or have their signature forged.
  • Multiple wills. In this situation, the one that was made most recently is often the one that the courts will decide is valid. However, wills created immediately before death may be contested due to undue influence, lack of mental capacity, or other reasons.
  • The state requirements aren’t met. Every state has specific requirements as to what must be in a will, the way in which it’s signed and the number of witnesses required. If these elements aren’t met, then the will may not be valid.
  • Location. Some states may not recognize wills created in another state.

To contest the will, you must have grounds, or legal standing, which means you must meet one of these requirements:

  • A prior will designates you as a beneficiary;
  • The current will designates you as a beneficiary;
  • You’re the beneficiary of a more recent will made after the one in question; or
  • You would be an heir if there was no will, and the state’s laws of intestacy were applied.

Your attorney will next file a petition in the state probate court where the estate is under probate. This tells the probate court that you are a beneficiary and the estate that you are contesting the will. If your case is not settled, it goes to court where you’ll make your argument as to why the will should be changed. The court will decide the outcome of your case.

A way to keep family members  from fighting over an estate is add a no-contest clause into the will. This disinherits any beneficiary who challenges a will, if their challenge fails. In order words, if you don’t win your challenge, you get nothing from the estate. If you would like to read more about wills and probate, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: MSN (May 30, 2022) “Contesting a Will? You Might Not Need a Lawyer”

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Even Young Adults Need a Will

Even Young Adults Need a Will

Even young adults need a will. Everyone, age 18 and older, needs at least some basic estate planning documents. That’s true even if you own very little. You still need an advance health care directive and a power of attorney. These documents designate agents to make decisions for you, in the event you become incapacitated.

The Los Angeles Daily News’ recent article entitled “Estate planning, often overwhelming, starts with the basics” reminds us that incapacity doesn’t just happen to the elderly. It can happen from an accident, a health crisis, or an injury. To have these documents in place, you just need to state the person you want to make decisions for you and generally what those decisions should be.

An experienced estate planning attorney will help you draft your will by using a questionnaire you complete before your initial meeting. This helps you to organize and list the information required. It also helps the attorney spot issues, such as taxes, blended families and special needs. You will list your assets — real property, business entities, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds, cars, life insurance and anything else you may own. The estimated or actual value of each item should also be included. If you have life insurance or retirement plans, attach a copy of the beneficiary designation form.

An experienced estate planning attorney will discuss your financial and family situation and offer options for a plan that will fit your needs.

The attorney may have many different solutions for the issues that concern you and those you may not have considered. These might include a child with poor money habits, a blended family where you need to balance the needs of a surviving spouse with the expectations of the children from a prior marriage, a pet needing ongoing care, or your thoughts about who to choose as your trustee or power of attorney.

There are many possible solutions, and you aren’t required to know them before you move ahead with your estate planning.

Young adults need a will. If you are an adult, you know generally what you own, your name and address and the names of your spouse and children or any other beneficiaries you’d like to include in your plan. So, you’re ready to move ahead with your estate planning. The key is to do this now and not procrastinate. If you would like to learn more about estate planning for young adults, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Los Angeles Daily News (July 24, 2022) “Estate planning, often overwhelming, starts with the basics”

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Tips to avoid a Contested Will

Tips to avoid a Contested Will

A last will and testament is the document used to direct your executor to distribute assets and property according to your wishes. However, it’s not uncommon for disgruntled or distant family members or others to dispute the validity of the will. There are tips to avoid a contested will. A recent article titled “5 Reasons A Law Will May Be Contested” from Vents Magazine explains the top five factors to keep in mind when preparing your will.

Undue influence is a commonly invoked reason for a challenge. If a potential beneficiary can prove the person making the will (the testator) was influenced by another person to make decisions they would not have otherwise made, a will challenge could be brought to court. Undue influence means the testator’s decision was significantly affected by a person who stood to gain something by the outcome of the will and made a concerted effort to change the testator’s mind.

Even if there was no evidence of fraud, any suspicion of the testator’s being influenced is enough for a court to accept a case. If you think someone unduly influenced a loved one, especially if they suffer from any mental frailties or dementia, you may have cause to bring a case.

Outright fraud or forgery is another reason for the will to be contested. If there have been many erasures or signature styles appear different from one document to another, there may have been fraud. An estate planning attorney should examine documents to evaluate whether there is enough cause for suspicion to challenge the will.

Improper witnesses. The testator is required to sign the will with witnesses present. In some states, only one witness is required. In most states, two witnesses must be present to sign the will in front of the testator. A beneficiary may not be a witness to the signing of the will. Some states have changed laws to allow for remote signings in response to COVID. If the rules have not been followed, the will may be invalid.

Mistaken identity seems farfetched. However, it is a common occurrence, especially when someone has a common name or more than one person in the family has the same name, and the document has not been properly signed or witnessed. This could create confusion and make the document vulnerable to a challenge. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to prepare documents to withstand any challenges.

Capacity in the law means someone is able to understand the concept of a will and contents of the document they are signing, along with the identities of the people to whom they are leaving their assets. The testator doesn’t need to have perfect mental health, so people with mild cognitive impairments, such as depression or anxiety, may make and sign a will. A medical opinion may be needed, if there might be any doubt as to whether a person had testamentary capacity when the will is signed.

A contested will can be time-consuming and expensive, so keep these tips in mind to avoid it, especially if the family includes some litigious individuals. If you would like to learn more about drafting a will, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Vents Magazine (May 6, 2022) “5 Reasons A Law Will May Be Contested”

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Be certain You've got Legal Documents for your College Kid

Be certain You’ve got Legal Documents for your College Kid

There are few things more exciting as a parent than seeing your child come of age and embark on adulthood. That often means leaving home to start a career or enter college. It is at this stage that you need to be certain you’ve got legal documents in place for your college kid. The Press-Enterprise’s recent article entitled “Legal documents for young adults” describes some of the important legal and estate planning documents your “kid” (who’s now an adult) should have.

HIPAA Waiver. This form allows medical personnel to provide information to the parties you’ve named in the document. Without it, even mom would be prohibited from accessing her 19-year-old adult’s health information—even in an emergency. However, know that this form doesn’t authorize anyone to make decisions. For that, see Health Care Directives below.

Health Care Directive. Also known as a health care power of attorney, this authorizes someone else to make health care decisions for you and details the decisions you’d like made.

Durable Power of Attorney. Once your child turns 18, you’re no longer able to act on their behalf, make decisions for them, or enter into any kind of an agreement binding them. This can be a big concern, if your adult child becomes incapacitated. A springing durable power of attorney is a document that becomes effective only upon the incapacity of the principal (the person signing the document). It’s called a “springing” power because it springs into effect upon incapacity, rather than being effective immediately.

A durable power of attorney, whether springing or immediate, states who can make decisions for you upon your incapacity and what powers the agent has. The designated agent will typically be able to access bank accounts, pay bills, file insurance claims, engage attorneys or other professionals, and in general, act on behalf of the incapacitated person.

They’ll always be your babies, but once your child turns 18, he or she is legally an adult.

Be certain that you’ve got the legal documents in place to be there for your college kid in case of an emergency.

Remember a spring break, when they’re home for summer after their 18th birthday, or a senior road trip are all opportunities when these documents may be needed. If you would like to learn more about estate planning for young adults, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (April 2, 2022) “Legal documents for young adults”

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how divorcing over fifty effects estate planning

How Divorcing over Fifty effects Estate Planning

If you are and older couple considering a divorce, take care to consider how divorcing over fifty effects estate planning. According to the Pew Research Center, the divorce rate has more than doubled for people over 50 since the 1990s. The Pandemic is also adding to the uptick, says AARP’s recent article entitled “Getting Divorced? It’s Time to Update Your Caregiving Plan.”

A divorce can be financially draining. Moreover, later-in-life divorces frequently impact women’s finances more than men’s. That is because in addition to depressed earnings from time spent out of the workforce raising children, women find themselves more financially vulnerable post-divorce and more likely to serve as caregivers again in the future. Even so, for partners of all genders, it is important to consider the longer-term financial outlook, not just the financial situation you’re in when you are actually dissolving the marriage.

You and your spouse will be dividing assets and liabilities and the responsibilities regarding spousal support. How one of you will live if the other gets sick or passes away should also be part of this conversation.

Consider where you’ll need to make changes. One may be removing your spouse from beneficiary designations on all your accounts. (In some states, this is automatic.) Your divorce agreement may also include buying life insurance or maintaining a trust or beneficiary designations for one another.

Create or update your estate plan immediately. You should also ask your estate planning attorney to review your marital agreement. They will have suggestions about how to align your estate plan with your divorce obligations. If you and your ex are co-parenting children, your estate plan should address who their guardians will be, if both biological parents pass away. It is also important to address who will manage any inheritance, if you don’t want your ex-spouse handling assets you may leave to your children.

Create your life care plan, which means naming health care proxies or surrogates (who will take care of your medical affairs, if you’re in need of caregiving), designating a financial power of attorney (who will take care of your finances and legal affairs), and naming a guardian for yourself if you’re incapacitated.

Consider the way in which your divorce will impact your children and extended family if you need caregiving. At a minimum, agree between yourselves what level of contact you can manage and, if you share children and loved ones, know that your lives will cross along the way.

While your marriage may not last, the connections will, so make a wise plan. Your estate planning attorney will help advise you on how divorcing over fifty effects your estate planning. If you would like to learn more about estate planning and divorce, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: AARP (Jan. 25, 2022) “Getting Divorced? It’s Time to Update Your Caregiving Plan”

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Mistakes can lead to an Invalid Will

Mistakes can lead to an Invalid Will

One of the many reasons an experienced estate planning attorney is the best resource for creating an estate plan, including a Last Will and Testament, Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy, is the confidence of knowing your estate plan has been properly prepared. People who believe they know better than an experienced lawyer, often send their families into a legal, financial, and emotional black hole after they die. Mistakes can lead to an invalid will. The article “Red Flags Indicating a Potentially Invalid Will” from The National Law Journal provides a closer look at why it pays to work with a professional.

When a decedent executes a new Last Will near the end of their life and makes a dramatic change to previous estate plans, there may be trouble ahead. When this is the case, several issues need to be examined to ensure that the document is valid. Strong consideration must be given to whether the person had sufficient capacity to execute the document.

When a person is suffering from an illness or near death, they may be susceptible to the improper influence of people who may cause them to make uncharacteristic changes to their estate plan. Any Last Will drafted within the last few months of a person’s life requires careful review.

If, shortly after a person has handed the reins of their financial life to another, using a Power of Attorney in any of its forms (Durable POA, Springing POA) and a new Last Will is created, a red flag should be raised, especially if the Last Will has been changed to benefit this person.

What if a person’s capacity was hovering near the borderline of capacity and incapacity? If a decedent’s mental capacity was questionable at the time the Last Will was executed, the Last Will may not be valid. A person with legal mental capacity must understand the assets they own and clearly understand to whom they are bequeathing assets. The standard for this issue is low, but if the decedent was suffering from a degenerative mental condition or a sudden onset of incapacity due to an illness or accident, the Last Will may be challenged.

If a layperson creates a Last Will or uses an online service to create it and the Last Will does not comply with the state’s estate laws, the Last Will may have technical issues rendering it invalid. When this occurs, it is as if there were no Last Will at all and the estate is distributed according to the laws of the state.

The biggest red flag is the presence of any large changes from the next to Last Will to the final Last Will, with no known reason for the change having been made. This may be a result of changes to mental capacity or undue influence of a third party. An experienced estate planning attorney is the best resource to create a Last Will. They will be among the first to ask why significant changes from a prior Last Will are being requested. Don’t allow mistakes to jeopardize your wishes and lead to an invalid will. If you would like to learn more about drafting a will, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: The National Law Journal (March 30, 2022) “Red Flags Indicating a Potentially Invalid Will”

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Why You should review Estate Planning

Why You should review Estate Planning

There is a line from John Lennon that states, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” This is especially true when reviewing your estate planning. Maybe your estate plan was created when you were single, and there have been some significant changes in your life. Perhaps you got married or divorced. You also may now be on better terms with children with whom you were once estranged. This is why you should periodically review your estate planning to ensure they are accurate and up-to-date.

Tax and estate laws can also change over time, requiring further updates to your planning documents.

WMUR’s recent article entitled “The ‘final’ estate-planning step” reminds us that change is a constant thing. With that in mind, here are some key indicators that a review is in order.

  • The value of your estate has changed dramatically
  • You or your spouse changed jobs
  • Changes to your income level or income needs
  • You are retiring and no longer working
  • There is a divorce or marriage in your family
  • There is a new child or grandchild
  • There is a death in the family
  • You (or a close family member) have become ill or incapacitated
  • Your parents have become dependent on you
  • You have formed, purchased, or sold a business;
  • You make significant financial transactions, such as substantial gifts, borrowing or lending money, or purchasing, leasing, or selling assets or investments
  • You have moved
  • You have purchased a vacation home or other property in another state
  • A designated trustee, executor, or guardian dies or changes his or her mind about serving; and
  • You are making changes in your insurance coverage.

Your should review your estate planning after every major change of life. Sit down with your estate planning attorney and take the time to review your planning. If you would like to read more about making changes to your estate planning, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: WMUR (Feb. 3, 2022) “The ‘final’ estate-planning step”

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Information in our blogs is very general in nature and should not be acted upon without first consulting with an attorney. Please feel free to contact Texas Trust Law to schedule a complimentary consultation.
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