What is the Difference between Guardianship and Power of Attorney?

Protecting yourself or a loved one can take many different forms, since aging takes a toll on the ability to handle financial and medical decisions. In most situations, guardianship or a power of attorney does the trick, says the article “Guardianships vs. Powers of Attorney” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  How to know which is the best one to use?

A guardianship is a court-authorized assignment of surrogate decision-making power for the benefit of a person who has lost the ability to make informed decisions on their own, often described as a person who has become incapacitated. The decisions that another person can make on their behalf can be very broad, or they can be very specific.

If a person becomes incapacitated, either through a slowly progressing illness like dementia or quickly, as the result of an accident, a judge will appoint a person or sometimes an organization to handle health care and financial decisions. The court-appointed guardian or organization could be a person or agency you have never heard of and would not know your family or anything about you.

Yes, that is scary. However, guardianship takes place when families do not plan in advance to appoint a surrogate decision maker, also known as an “agent.”

Here’s even more scary news: once the court has appointed a guardian, that relationship may continue for the rest of the incapacitated person’s life. That means annual accountings and involvement with the court, legal fees and other professional fees the guardian or court deems necessary.

There are some guardians who have made headlines for stealing money and making care decisions that the individual and their families did not want.

Meeting with an estate planning attorney to prepare for incapacity as part of an overall estate plan is a far better way. Why don’t more people do it?

  • They aren’t aware of the importance of power of attorney.
  • They don’t want to spend the money.
  • They don’t know who to choose as their power of attorney
  • They don’t want to think about incapacity or death.

In contrast to a court-supervised lifetime guardianship, a properly drafted power of attorney can provide for an agent to make a variety of financial and medical decisions. The person named as a power of attorney (the agent) can serve for the person’s lifetime, just like a guardian.

This is the most fundamental estate planning document, after the last will and testament. Once it’s prepared, you can always change your mind and you or your agent never need to go to court.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Feb. 24, 2020) “Guardianships vs. Powers of Attorney”

How is a Guardianship Determined?

Because the courts call guardianship “a massive curtailment of liberty,” it’s important that guardianship be used only when necessary.

The Pauls Valley Democrat’s recent article asks, “Guardianship – What is sufficient incapacity?” As the article explains, courts must be certain that an individual is truly “incapacitated.”

For example, Oklahoma law defines an incapacitated person as a person 18 years or older, who is impaired by reason of:

  1. Mental illness;
  2. Intellectual or developmental disability;
  3. Physical illness or disability; or
  4. Drug or alcohol dependency.

In addition, an incapacitated person’s ability to receive and evaluate information or to communicate decisions is impaired to such a level that the person (i) lacks capacity to maintain health and safety; or (ii) is unable to manage financial resources.

A person who is requesting to be appointed guardian by the court must show evidence to prove the person’s incapacity. This evidence is typically presented with the professional opinion of medical, psychological, or administrative bodies.

In some instances, a court may initiate its own investigation with known medical experts. In these cases, the type of professional chosen to provide an opinion should match the needs of the person (the “ward”), who will be subject to guardianship.

The court will receive this evidence and if it’s acceptable, in many cases, require that the experts provide a plan for the care and administration of the ward and his assets. This plan will become a control measure, as well as guidance for the guardian who’s appointed.

These controls will include regular monitoring and reports of performance back to the court.

If you are interested in more information about guardianship in Utah, visit our website here.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (Jan. 23, 2020) “Guardianship – What is sufficient incapacity?”

Elder Financial Abuse Is Increasing

A September 2018 Forbes report said that elder financial abuse would only get worse as we age. With 10,000 people turning age 65 every day for the decade, the demographics include a growing pool of potentially fragile retirees and the elderly, many of whom are susceptible to financial exploitation.

alphabetastock.coms recent article entitled “Elder Financial Abuse Is Rising” says that, although the criminals are out there, a lot of elder financial abuse actually begins in the retirement system, because individuals must accumulate and handle a large amount of money designed to last an entire lifetime. With $14.5 trillion in self-directed retirement accounts in the U.S., it’s a big, enticing target for financial predators.

Elder financial abuse includes all of the frauds and scams targeting seniors and because it’s a hidden crime, many victims opt not to report it. Those that do report the crimes, frequently don’t prosecute.

However, when it comes to trying to promote real changes that will provide some material protections, the investment, insurance, and financial services industries directly or indirectly have been showing some reticence about the potential compliance expense. Some of these companies are lobbying to maintain a status quo—one that’s on a course to see a steady rise in elder financial exploitation.

Many retirement investors think their professional financial advisors are fiduciaries who are legally bound to act in their best interests. However, that’s not always so. Many professional financial advisors need only adhere to a lower legal standard of behavior. They can’t outright tell you a lie—but they can make recommendations that don’t put the customer’s best interests as a top priority.

A GAO study found elder financial abuse to be a growing epidemic. Rather than being able to live out their golden years in safety and financial security, the lack of financial safeguards are leaving an entire (and growing) group of older Americans at risk. These seniors are often left on their own and confused as to how the advisors they entrusted with their financial security are permitted to make moves that are motivated by high commissions and self-interest. These so-called professionals aren’t required by the law to place interests of their clients ahead of their own.

Theft and illegal behavior is one small component of the elder financial exploitation. A bigger part comes from abusive financial practices, such as higher fees and complex and unsuitable advice and recommendations from professional financial advisors who aren’t fiduciaries.

Be sure that you are working with a financial professional who is a fiduciary. Ask your elder law attorney for recommendations.

Reference: alphabetastock.com (January 11, 2020) “Elder Financial Abuse Is Rising”

What Is an Advance Care Directive?

People start out with good intentions at the start of the year, and then fail to follow through.  This makes difficult situations even worse for their family. The process begins with discussions about your care wishes, explains the Chicago Tribune’s Daily Southdown in the article “Talk to your family now about advance care directives.”

That conversation should include who you would trust as a health care agent. This person would be named in the medical power of attorney, an advance directive legal document that gives that person the power to make medical and care decisions on your behalf if you are not able to.

That person needs to know, from you, what’s important to you when it comes to quality of life, or length of life.

This is a very important document, as the person has the power to make life and death decisions on your behalf.

It also covers whether you want to be an organ donor. If an unexpected accident occurred and your organs were still healthy and working, would you want to give them to someone who needs a kidney or a heart? If that would be your goal, you need to make your wishes known to your health care proxy and health care providers, as well as to your family.

A living will is also important to have in place. This is used in cases of incurable or irreversible injury, disease, or illness. It expresses your wishes for end-of life care. It gives you the ability to refuse any death-delaying treatment and allow you to die naturally.

These are family matters that should be discussed, but often are not. The topics are hard, as they are centered on our mortality, the mortality of those we love and the reality of death. However, when family members know what their loved one’s wishes are, it provides the family with a tremendous relief.

Without a medical power of attorney or living will, the family may end up fighting over what each member thinks their loved ones wanted. Without clear direction from the family and the correct legal documents, the health care provider must take steps to prolong life, even if that is not what the person wanted.

When naming a health care agent, think about someone who you trust completely. That person will have access to your medical records and be able to approve who else sees them. They may also authorize tests and treatment, decide where you will receive care, which physicians will provide care and whether to accept, withdraw or decline treatment.

Talk to a qualified estate planning attorney for more information about these important documents.

Reference: Chicago Tribune’s Daily Southdown (Dec. 30, 2019) “Talk to your family now about advance care directives”

Medications That Can Raise Your Risk of Dementia

A recent study has found there is an entire classification of medications that can raise your risk of dementia. Doctors prescribe these drugs frequently for seniors. The patients do not have to take the medications long-term to be significantly more likely to develop dementia.

The research focused on nearly 300,000 people, age 55 and older, over a 12-year period. The scientists found an association between the drugs and dementia risk. If, indeed, these medicines cause dementia, the statistics indicate these drugs could be responsible for about 10 percent of the cases of dementia. Since so many older adults take the types of medications now associated with a higher risk of dementia, this information could impact the lives of millions of people and their loved ones.

Types of Drugs That Increase Your Risk of Dementia

The category of medications found to have an association with a higher likelihood of dementia is anticholinergic drugs. The medical community has known about a link between these substances and memory issues or confusion for quite some time. The new study took the matter a step further to exploring dementia risk.

The anticholinergic drugs with the strongest association with dementia include:

  • Antidepressants, for example, amitriptyline and paroxetine
  • Treatments for overactive bladder, using bladder antimuscarinics like tolterodine and oxybutynin
  • Anti-seizure medications for epilepsy, like carbamazepine and oxcarbazepine
  • Anti-psychotic drugs, such as olanzapine and chlorpromazine

Doctors prescribe anticholinergic medications to treat a wide range of maladies, including motion sickness, vertigo and the conditions named above.

The Dosage Required to Affect Your Dementia Risk

According to the study, you would only have to take one pill a day for three years to have a higher risk of dementia. The drugs studied can increase the likelihood of dementia by almost 50 percent at that dosage.

Drugs That Do Not Increase Your Risk of Dementia

Some types of anticholinergic medications do not appear to increase the risk of dementia. For example, the researchers found no association between dementia risk and these anticholinergics:

  • Anti-arrhythmic drugs
  • Antimuscarinic bronchodilators
  • Skeletal muscle relaxants
  • Antihistamines
  • Gastrointestinal antispasmodics

The study did not give an explanation for why some classifications of anticholinergic drugs have an association with a higher likelihood of dementia and other types do not. In response to the article that published the study results, some medical experts call for research to determine if a patient can reverse the increased risk factor by stopping the drugs.

What You Should Do If You Take Anticholinergic Drugs

There is a wide variety of increased dementia risk, depending on which type of anticholinergic medication you take. Medical experts warn you should not stop taking your medicine without talking with your doctor first. The type of drug you take might have a low association with dementia.

It can also be harmful to stop taking a medication suddenly. Drugs that prevent seizures, depression, or psychosis should never get discontinued, without medical intervention and monitoring. Work with your doctor to evaluate the risk of the specific medicine you take and consider switching to another drug that could treat your condition without as much chance of developing dementia.

Your state might have different regulations than the general law of this article. You should talk with an elder law attorney in your area.

References:

CNN. “Commonly prescribed drugs tied to nearly 50% higher dementia risk in older adults, study says.” (accessed December 19, 2019) https://www.cnn.com/2019/06/24/health/dementia-risk-drug-study/index.html

If You Plan to Retire This Year, Be Prepared

If you’re sure that you are going to leave the working world and start your retirement life in 2020, better not put in your notice at work until you’ve done your homework. The Motley Fool article “Retiring in 2020? 3 Things You Need to Know” covers three important steps.

If you were born in 1958, then this is the year you celebrate your 62nd birthday—which means you are eligible to collect Social Security. However, if you do, your benefits will be reduced as you have not yet reached your “Full Retirement Age” or FRA. People born in 1958 need to be 66 and eight months to reach that important milestone. At that point, you can collect your full benefit. Collect earlier, and your monthly benefit is reduced for the rest of your life.

Born in 1954 or earlier? Full retirement age for you is 66, if you were born between 1943 and 1954. If if you were born at the tail end of this range, then you can collect your full Social Security benefit this year. However, it still may pay to hold off on claiming benefits.

The longer you can delay tapping your Social Security benefits, the better. From the time you reach your FRA until age 70, your monthly benefit grows by about 8% each year. Few investments today have that kind of guaranteed yield. Some advisors recommend tapping retirement accounts first and delaying Social Security benefits as long as possible. It’s worth taking a closer look to see how this can be of benefit.

If you are planning to retire, but you’re not 65, you’ll need to find and pay for health insurance until you celebrate your 65th birthday. You can enroll in Medicare a few months before your 65th birthday, but if you’re 62, then you have a three-year health insurance gap. Private health insurance is extremely expensive, there’s no way around it. Before putting in that letter to HR that you’re retiring, get some real numbers on this cost. If your employer will consider having you work part-time so that you can maintain your employer-covered health insurance, it may be a good idea.

If you’re closer to age 65, then COBRA is a consideration, although it may still be expensive. Typically, COBRA allows you to retain your existing health coverage if you change jobs, or are fired, for a certain amount of time. However, you have to pay for the full cost of health coverage.

If your gap is only three months, then COBRA might make sense. However, if your gap is a year or more, then you need to be realistic about health coverage options. Pre-existing conditions and a limited marketplace for individual coverage may make this the reason you keep working until 65. You should also check the rules of going from COBRA to Medicare—they may not be the same as going from an employee plan to Medicare.

The more prepared you are for retirement, the more you’ll be able to relax and enjoy this new phase of your life. If these three points have made it clear that you’re not yet able to retire, understand that it is better to work a little longer to reach your eventual goal of retirement, then to find yourself struggling to pay bills and jeopardize a lifetime of savings because of unexpected expenses.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Dec. 28, 2019) “Retiring in 2020? 3 Things You Need to Know”

Why a Will Is the Foundation of an Estate Plan

An estate planning lawyer has many different tools to achieve clients’ estate planning goals. However, at the heart of any plan is the will, also known as the “last will and testament.” Even people who are young or who have modest levels of assets should have a will—one that is legally valid and up to date. For parents of young children, this is especially important, says the article “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan” from the Sparta Independent. Why? Because in most states, a will is the only way that parents can name guardians for their children.

Having a will means that your estate will avoid being “intestate,” that is, having your assets distributed according to the laws of your state. With a will, you get to determine who is to receive your property. That includes your home, car, bank and investment accounts and any other assets, including those with sentimental value.

Without a will, your property will be distributed to your closest blood relatives, depending upon how closely related they are to you. Few individuals want to have the state making these decisions for their property. Most people would rather make these decisions for themselves.

Property can be left to anyone you choose—including a spouse, children, charities, a trust, other relatives, a college or university, or anyone you want. There are some limits imposed by law that you should know about: a spouse has certain rights to your property, and they cannot be reversed based on your will.

For parents of young children, the will is used to name a legal guardian for children. A personal guardian, who takes personal custody of the children, can be named, as well as a property guardian, who is in charge of the children’s assets. This can be the same person, but is often two different people. You may also want to ask your estate planning attorney about using trusts to fund children’s college educations.

The will is also a means of naming an executor. This is the person who acts as your legal representative after your death. This person will be in charge of carrying out all of your estate settlement tasks, so they need to be someone you trust, who is skilled with managing property and the many tasks that go into settling an estate. The executor must be approved by the probate court, before they can start taking action for you.

There are also taxes and expenses that need to be managed. Unless the will provides directions, these are determined by state law. To be sure that gifts you wanted to give to family and loved ones are not consumed by taxes, the will needs to indicate that taxes and expenses are to be paid from the residuary estate.

A will can be used to create a “testamentary trust,” which comes into existence when your will is probated. It has a trustee, beneficiaries and directions on how distributions should be made. The use of trusts is especially important, if you have young children who are not able to manage assets or property.

Note that any assets distributed through a will are subject to probate, the court-supervised process of administering and proving a will. Probate can be costly and time-consuming, and the records are available to the public, which means anyone can see them. Many people chose to distribute their assets through trusts to avoid having large assets pass through probate.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a will and the many different functions that the will plays in settling your estate. You’ll also want to explore planning for incapacity, which includes having a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Medical Directives. Estate planning attorneys also work on tax issues to minimize the taxes paid by the estate.

Reference: Sparta Independent (Dec. 19, 2019) “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan”

How Does a Conservatorship Work?

Millennials, now in their 30s, need to begin thinking about caring for their boomer parents, as medical, financial and mental health needs come up. For lucky families, this will mean conversations with travel agents and financial advisors. For those not so fortunate, it will mean conversations with doctors, nursing home staff and, in some cases, with lawyers regarding conservatorships, says KAKE.com in the article “What is a Conservatorship and How Does It Work?”

A conservatorship is a form of legal guardianship of an adult. The conservator has legal authority over certain parts of the person’s life. It may be a “limited conservatorship,” where only specific matters are under the conservator’s control, like health or finances. The “full conservatorship” gives the conservator complete control over the person’s life, in the same way that a parent has legal control over a child.

Conservatorship is granted when the person no longer has the capacity to make decisions on their own behalf. In almost all cases, this is based on their mental capacity. While it can happen, physical incapacity rarely is acceptable for conservatorship to be awarded.

Some of the common reasons for conservatorship by way of mental incapacity, include if the person is in a coma, suffers from Alzheimer’s, dementia or severe mental illness, or has a permanent or genetic mental disability that prevents them from ever reaching legal maturity or independence.

Conservatorship is a legal proceeding, which must be granted by an officer or appointee of the court. It’s typically handled by a state probate court or family court. Hearings are usually held by a judge or a magistrate. A conservatorship may be part of estate planning. Most conservatorships require medical paperwork, but in all instances, the potential ward must have the opportunity to be heard by the decision maker and to present their case, if they wish, as to why conservatorship should not be granted. An individual also has the right to challenge the conservatorship, in court, at any time, if they disagree.

Power of Attorney may be used to accomplish some of the things that would be accomplished by a conservatorship. A POA gives a person the ability to make legally binding decisions for someone else, and the scope can be narrow or broad. The POA, however, is granted at the discretion of the person giving another person this power.

An estate planning attorney will be able to discuss all of the rights, responsibilities and fiduciary obligations of a conservatorship. Most have had experience with conservatorship and will be able to help the family and the individual make informed decisions in the best interest of the individual.

Reference: KAKE.com (December 11, 2019) “What is a Conservatorship and How Does It Work?”

I’m a Fiduciary—What Does That Mean?

There are any number of pitfalls that may occur when administering an estate, a trust or another person’s finances under a Power of Attorney (POA). Fiduciary duties are the highest under the law, and the fiduciary is legally required to put the interests of the person they are representing above their own. The most common problem for a fiduciary is not taking their responsibilities seriously enough, says the article “What does it mean to serve as a fiduciary? from the New Hampshire Union Leader.

You can avoid some common pitfalls, if you keep the following in mind:

Know the governing instrument. A fiduciary must abide by the terms of the governing instrument, which might be a Power of Attorney (POA), trust, or another legal document. The powers you hold are limited to those granted in the document. There are times when even though you have a power or the ability to do something, it’s not in the best interest of the grantor. Let’s say the trust gives you as a trustee the power to make distributions to a beneficiary. If the beneficiary has sufficient independent resources, doing so might be a breach of your duties. In the same way, the ability to make gifts that is given by a POA, doesn’t mean you should automatically start making gifts.

Maintain extremely detailed records. Do this for two reasons. You have a duty to do so, and you need good records in case anyone claims that you did something wrong. Make sure that your records have enough details so that any expense or expenditure can be documented and explained.

Transparency is the best approach. Every situation is different, and family dynamics differs, but if you can, speak with family members before making any transactions. If they object, you can decide whether or not to proceed, or to petition the probate court to give the court’s blessing in advance. In this case, it is better to ask permission in advance, than ask for forgiveness after the fact.

Never mix your personal or business funds with that of the estate. This is one of the biggest problems for people who have never been a fiduciary before. If you are a fiduciary for more than one estate, then you’ll need to have funds and property completely separate from each other.

Fiduciary duties need to be treated with great care to avoid any liability and litigation. If you are not prepared to be a fiduciary, you could decide to decline the role. Speak with an estate planning attorney, if you have any reservations about taking on this responsibility.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (December 7, 2019) “What does it mean to serve as a fiduciary?

Fighting Elder Abuse in Iowa

The missing money came from years of work on the family’s farm. It was supposed to be passed to her father. ,However the money had gone to her half-sister’s bank account. As reported by Iowa Public Radio’s article “Elder Abuse Remains A Legal Challenge in Iowa,” it took months to figure it all out.

Morrison accuses her sister of forging documents and lying to their mother—who spoke little English—to get the money. However, it took nearly three years before the sister was charged with first degree theft for taking the money without authorization. It was a long, complex paper trail with a detective who kept putting her off, telling her that he had homicides and human trafficking to deal with.

Morrison had to fight tooth and nail the whole way. That doesn’t surprise Chantelle Smith, an assistant attorney general in Des Moines, who has worked on elder abuse cases for almost twenty years. She sees cases like this all the time, she said. They are challenging and time intensive for law enforcement, especially in rural areas. If there are only two officers and two detectives, they may not have the time to investigate an elder abuse case.

The National Council on Aging reports that one in ten adults over age 60 has experienced some form of abuse, whether it is financial, physical, or emotional. However, less than 5 percent of these cases actually reaches litigation after a complaint is made, according to a University of Iowa report. Numbers from the Department of Human Services have risen to nearly 5,300 for adults over 60, compared to 860 just five years ago.

The state attorney general’s office just completed a three-year program funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to combat elder abuse. 600 law enforcement agents, doctors, victim services providers and other professionals were trained on how to identify and investigate elder abuse.

The grant was also used to create a community response team, which puts people from different professions together for regular meetings on how to address these issues. The grant was also used to pilot a “Later in Life” program in Dallas County that trains specialists to find and provide services to victims over age 50.

Polk County, the most highly populated in Iowa, is the only county with a unit dedicated to elder and dependent adult abuse.

The executive director of the Crisis Intervention and Advocacy Center in Adel, Iowa, said that in the past 17 months, nearly 400 people have been helped in 12 mostly rural counties. The center has three elder abuse specialists, who help victims in moving out of abuser’s homes, get them to appointments and help them file police reports, if they wish to do so. Few victims are willing to file a police report, but in nearly all cases, the abuser is a family member. They are fearful of retaliation, and of getting family members in trouble with the law.

The program is in limbo, since the federal grant ended in September and the agency is waiting for news about an extension.

Reference: Iowa Public Radio (November 19, 2019) “Elder Abuse Remains A Legal Challenge in Iowa”