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”

Special Needs Guardianship Can Be a Challenge

A person who’s diagnosed with autism should have a named guardian before turning 18. At that point, the person can sign binding contracts, make health care decisions and sign IEPs (Individualized Education Plan) without parental involvement.

Autism Parenting’s recent article entitled “A Brief Overview of Special Needs Guardianship” explains that guardianship is a legal process in which a responsible person is named as the final decision maker for another. When it’s the parent and their child with autism, the parent can become the guardian of the 18-year-old with autism in a specific legal process. Guardianship gives the parent the final say, on all decisions regarding the child.

It’s not uncommon for a parent to be hesitant about becoming the guardian, especially if the child is developing well and has several abilities. One question to ask in this situation concerns the intellectual or developmental age of my child. If the honest answer is below the age 18 (like 14 or 12 years old), then you’ll want to ask yourself if you’d allow your 14-year-old make all healthcare, education, housing and financial decisions and have those decisions be legally binding. Probably not. In that case, you should look into guardianship.

If your adult child continues to develop and at some point down the road can make decisions on her own, the guardian can petition the court to have relationship revoked.

Another important time period that guardianship needs to be considered is when the parents die. The appointed guardian then will be responsible for day-to-day care or decisions on that day to day care. The selection of a guardian for this situation is often a large roadblock to finishing up a family’s plan.

The reason is because parents must make this decision before completing their will. If parents have trouble with choosing a potential guardian, consider these criteria when considering each person: location, family circumstances, their personality qualities and demeanor, their age, their experience with special needs individuals, the fact that the person knows your family member, your parent or your loved one knows the individual, their financial position, marital status and work schedule.

By the following factors, parents can rank each possible future guardian and settle on the best possible choice.

Although the guardian might never be as committed as a parent, if you use a more objective process (like the criteria above), parents will be better able to find a qualified future guardian.

Click here for more information about guardianship and conservatorship.

Reference: Autism Parenting (undated) “A Brief Overview of Special Needs Guardianship”

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?”

If I’m 35, Do I Need a Will?

Estate planning is a crucial process for everyone, no matter what assets you have now. If you want your family to be able to deal with your affairs, debts included, drafting an estate plan is critical, says Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate planning for those 40 and under.”

If you have young children, or other dependents, planning is vitally important. The less you have, the more important your plan is, so it can provide as long as possible and in the best way for those most important to you. You can’t afford to make a mistake.

Talk to your family about various “what if” situations. It is important that you’ve discussed your wishes with your family and that you’ve considered the many contingencies that can happen, like a serious illness or injury, incapacity, or death. This also gives you the chance to explain your rationale for making a larger gift to someone, rather than another or an equal division. This can be especially significant, if there’s a second marriage with children from different relationships and a wide range of ages. An open conversation can help avoid hard feelings later.

You should have the basic estate plan components, which include a will, a living will, advance directive, powers of attorney, and a designation of agent to control disposition of remains. These are all important components of an estate plan that should be created at the beginning of the planning process. A guardian should also be named for any minor children.

In addition, a life insurance policy can give your family the needed funds in the event of an untimely death and loss of income—especially for young parents. The loss of one or both spouses’ income can have a drastic impact.

Remember that your estate plan shouldn’t be a “one and done thing.” You need to review your estate plan every few years. This gives you the opportunity to make changes based on significant life events, tax law changes, the addition of more children, or their changing needs. You should also monitor your insurance policies and investments, because they dovetail into your estate plan and can fluctuate based on the economic environment.

When you draft these documents, you should work with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 21, 2020) “Estate planning for those 40 and under”

Why Do I Need an Attorney to Help Me with Estate Planning?

Your estate plan can be simple or complicated. The New Hampshire Union Leader’s recent article, “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional,” says that some strategies are definitely easier to implement—like having a will, for example. Others are more complex, like creating a trust. Whatever your needs, most strategies will probably necessitate that you hire a qualified estate planning attorney. Here are some situations that may require special planning attention:

  • Your estate is valued at more than the federal gift and/or estate tax applicable exclusion amount ($11.4 million per person in 2019);
  • You have minor children;
  • You have loved ones with special needs who depend on you;
  • You own a business;
  • You have property in more than one state;
  • You want to donate to charities;
  • You own valuable artwork or collectibles;
  • You have specific thoughts concerning health care; or
  • You desire privacy and want to avoid the probate process.

First, you need to understand your situation, and that includes factors like your age, health and wealth. Your thoughts about benefitting family members and taxes also need to be considered. You’ll want to have plans in place should you become incapacitated.

Next, think about your goals and objectives. Some common goals are:

  • Providing financial security for your family;
  • Preserving property for your heirs;
  • Avoiding disputes among family members or business partners;
  • Giving to a charity;
  • Managing your affairs, if you are disabled;
  • Having sufficient liquidity to pay the expenses of your estate; and
  • Transferring ownership of your property or business interests.

Ask your attorney about a will. If you have minor children, you must have a will to address guardianship, unless your state provides an alternative legal means to do so. Some people many need a trust to properly address their planning concerns. Some of your assets will also have their own beneficiary designations. Once you have you a plan, review it every few years or when there’s a birth, adoption, death, or divorce in the family.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (July 27, 2019) “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional”

Why You Need a Power of Attorney in Your Estate Plan

A power of attorney is an important legal document that allows a person, known as the principal, to designate a person of their choice to become their agent, acting on their behalf. This is usually done when the principal is unable to manage their financial affairs due to disability, illness or incapacity. It must be done while the principal is still competent, notes Delco Times in the article “What’s the difference between guardianship and power of attorney?” There are also instances when power of attorney is used when the principal is unable to conduct their own affairs, because they are traveling or are deployed overseas.

Related documents are the health care power of attorney and the durable power of attorney. A durable financial power of attorney is a document where the principal designates the powers that the agent may exercise over their finances. The powers granted by this document can be used by the agent, regardless of the principal’s capacity or disability.

The principal has the option to grant very broad authority to their agent. For instance, the principal could give their agent the authority to gift all their assets, while they are still living. That’s why it is very important for the specific provisions in the power of attorney to be carefully reviewed and tailored to the principal’s wishes. There are risks in naming an agent, since they are able to exercise complete control over the principal’s assets. The agent must be 100% trustworthy.

A health care power of attorney allows an agent to make decisions about the principal’s health. Note that this document is operative only when a copy is provided to the attending physician, and the physician determines that the principal is incompetent.

Both health care power of attorney and financial power of attorney may be revoked by the principal at any time and for any reason.

If the principal has not had these documents prepared in advance and then becomes incompetent by reason of injury, illness, or mental health issues, they may not have the legal right to sign the power of attorney. When this happens, it is necessary for a guardianship proceeding to occur, so that other people may be named to take charge of the person’s financial and health affairs. Advance planning is always preferred.

If an individual is born with a disability that impacts their capacity and upon attaining legal age, does not have the capacity to sign a power of attorney, then a guardianship proceeding will be necessary. The court must determine if the person is truly incapacitated and if there might be an alternative to appointing a guardian. Once the guardian is appointed, the principal no longer has the legal right to make decisions on their own behalf.

A guardianship is a much more restrictive tool than a power of attorney. For one thing, the power of attorney generally does not need the involvement of the court. There is always the possibility that a guardian is appointed who does not know the family or the individual. A durable power of attorney allows a person to appoint someone they know and trust to help them and their family, if and when they become incapacitated.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about how power of attorney works, and when guardianship issues might arise. Being prepared in advance by having the right documents in place, is always better than having the family going to court and hoping that the right decisions are made.

Reference: Delco Times (May 8, 2019) “What’s the difference between guardianship and power of attorney?”

Can I Create POA without Giving Up Control?

Seniors sometimes hesitate to sign off on a power of attorney that allows someone to act on their behalf, because they fear loss of control and exploitation. It’s not unreasonable, but it does create problems, says Daily Local News in the article “How to stay in control when appointing a power of attorney.”

On one hand, without having a signed power of attorney, which is relatively simple to obtain from an estate planning attorney, the family may be faced with going to court to file for guardianship.

Guardianship is expensive, time consuming, can limit the individual’s freedom and may even result in an appointment of someone the person does not want to be their guardian. There are some instances where guardianship is necessary.

On the other hand, the seniors who believe that a power of attorney is a powerful document that requires careful consideration, are right to give it the thoughtfulness this document deserves.

Here’s how to maintain some measure of control, while having a power of attorney:

Be certain about the agent you name. This is not a role for someone you recently met who feels like an old friend. It must be someone you would easily trust with your entire life savings, without a second thought. You need to be 100% sure that the person would act responsibly, in your best interests, following through in paying bills, consulting with experts when necessary, keeping records and being scrupulously honest and putting your interest first in everything they do.

Don’t name someone just because they are your oldest child and someone’s feelings would be hurt. If a person has money problems themselves, that person is not a good candidate for this role.

Have a backup. Or two. If your primary “attorney in fact” is unable or unwilling to act on your behalf, have a second person, or even a third, ready to act.

Ask your estate planning attorney to create documents that work for you. There are forms you can use, but they may not be appropriate for your situation. Your best bet is to have an attorney prepare a power of attorney document that meets your needs. For instance, you may not want to give someone unlimited power, or you may want to give them power to do everything but gift assets. You might want to give them the ability to cash in insurance policies for your medical expenses, but not to change the beneficiaries on your insurance policies.

If you want two agents to act together, you need to know whether your bank, brokerage house, financial institution or financial advisor will accept two. Will they be able to work together?

Separate financial power of attorney and health care power of attorney. One person does not need to handle all your tasks. One of your children may be great in crisis situations, while another is good at finances. Divide up the tasks, so that each can participate in decision making, in different areas.

Who needs to know about your power of attorney? It’s best if all your children know if one of them has been named attorney in fact and others have not. They will find out eventually, and it may be better, even if there is some grumbling, for them to know in advance of a crisis.

Fire at will. You retain the right to fire your agent(s), by serving them with a revocation or by appointing another attorney in fact. If the family is not getting along and things have turned ugly, speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that the proper protections are in place.

Lastly, protect yourself by keeping access to debit cards, credit cards, usernames, passwords and online access to bank and investments carefully secure. If you run into a problem, don’t hide from it—get the help you need, either from a family member, trusted friend, or your estate planning attorney.

Reference: Daily Local News (June 11, 2019) “How to stay in control when appointing a power of attorney”

When Should I Start My Estate Planning?

Only 42% of Americans have a will or other estate planning documents, according to a 2017 Caring.com study. Among parents of children under 18, only 36% have created a will.

USA Today’s recent article, “Estate planning: 6 steps to ensure your family is financially ready for when you die,” explains that if you die without a will, state laws will decide what happens to your property or who should be legally responsible for minor children. That might be OK in some circumstances, but in others, a grandchild with special needs might not receive the resources you want him to have, or an estranged family member might get your house.

For some reason, people believe that if they don’t do anything, things will “work out.” They often do not. Here is what you should consider:

Create a will. This document states who should get your money and possessions, as well as who would become a guardian to your minor children, if both parents die.

A living will. This legal document states what medical procedures you want or don’t want, if you’re incapacitated and can’t speak for yourself, such as whether to continue life-sustaining treatment. Powers of attorney let you appoint someone you trust to make legal, financial and health care decisions for you, if you are unable.

Trust. This is a legal entity that holds any property you want to leave to your beneficiaries. With a trust, your family won’t have to go through probate. Trusts also let you to set up instructions for how and when property is distributed. A trustee will manage the trust. Make sure you let people know, when you’ve designated them as a trustee. Name a secondary trustee, in case the primary trustee cannot or will not serve.

Beneficiaries. If you have investment accounts and retirement plans like a 401(k), make certain that the individual you’ve listed as the beneficiary is the person you want to receive those funds.  Remember to appoint a contingency or secondary beneficiary, just in case.

Work with an experienced attorney. Estate planning can be complicated, so get some professional legal help.

End-of-life planning isn’t really fun, but it’s necessary, if you want to have full control over your life and your assets.

Reference: USA Today (April 1, 2019) “Estate planning: 6 steps to ensure your family is financially ready for when you die”

How Do I Make the Right Estate Planning Moves When I Divorce?

The Journal Enterprise explains in its recent article, “5 Estate Planning Moves If You Are Getting Divorced,” that the following tips will help you get your plans in order, so your final wishes will be carried out later.

Medical Power of Attorney. This is also called a healthcare proxy. This person is named to make decisions on your medical care, if you’re ill or injured and can’t state your medical care decisions. Unless you make the change, your ex-spouse will have this right.

Financial Power of Attorney. Like a healthcare proxy, this is someone you select to take charge, if you become incapacitated. This person has authority over your financial decisions, and it means they have the authority to pay your bills, access your bank and investment accounts, collect and cash your paychecks and make financial decisions for you. You want to be certain that your assets are protected, and your financial obligations are met, while you’re unable to act on your own behalf. Most people name a spouse, but if you get divorced and don’t switch this designation, your spouse will still be your financial power of attorney and will retain access to your finances.

Create a List of Things to Change After Your Divorce. A divorce can freeze some assets and accounts, which remains in effect until it’s finalized. Therefore, you won’t be able to change the beneficiary on life insurance policies, pensions and other types of accounts. Ask your estate planning attorney to find out exactly what accounts will be affected. Once you know which ones are frozen, you should make a list to ensure you won’t neglect to change them, when the divorce is finalized.

Modify Your Will. In some states, you may not be permitted to create a new will, but your attorney should still be able to help you make the necessary changes. You’ll want to review your heirs. If you do have minor children and you have sole custody, you may want to designate another person as their guardian. If you named your spouse as executor of your will, you may want to consider changing that.

Modify Your Trust. You may have a revocable living trust, in addition to a will. One of the advantages of a revocable trust is that it doesn’t go through probate, so your heirs get a bigger inheritance more quickly. If you have a revocable trust, talk to your attorney about changing it after your divorce.

If you don’t make these changes at the time of your divorce, your assets may not go to the right beneficiaries, or your ex-spouse may end up with rights you didn’t intend.

Reference: Journal Enterprise (March 20, 2019) “5 Estate Planning Moves If You Are Getting Divorced”