Category: Guardianship

Better to Play it Safe: Proactive Estate Planning and Cognitive Impairment

Elder law attorneys can help plan your estate to include cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's diseaseMost financially savvy individuals begin planning their estate when they’re in peak mental shape. The idea that this might change at some point in the distant future is an unpleasant one, and they would rather go about their estate planning as if they’ll be as sharp as a tack late into their golden years. Unfortunately, this common approach of ignoring a potential problem and hoping it simply won’t happen can leave a giant hole in your estate plan. Read on to find out that this common hole can be more easily filled than you might think.

Expect the best, but plan for the worst

The reality is that an individual’s chances of experiencing some form of cognitive impairment rise with age. While it’s never certain whether cognitive impairment will occur, smart estate planning means factoring it in as a very real possibility.

As the huge baby boomer generation transitions from the workforce and begins to make their way into retirement, cases of Alzheimer’s are expected to spike from the current 5.1 million to 13.2 million as soon as 2050. Alzheimer’s is just one of several cognitive impairment conditions along with dementia and the much more common mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, which is often a precursor to those more serious ailments.

As U.S. life expectancies increase, the chances of living with cognitive impairment increase as well — with at least 9.5 percent of Americans over 70 experiencing it in one form or another.

No matter your age or family history, cognitive impairment can affect anyone although it’s widely accepted to affect mostly older adults. As you implement or revise your estate plan, it is well worth the effort to plan for this potential. Luckily, estate planning attorneys have developed good solutions to handle this circumstance and can help guide you on the best way to protect yourself and your family.

An easily-avoidable estate planning mistake

Consider Ashley’s story. A successful real estate agent with a stellar career in her hometown of Kalamazoo, MI, Ashley begins planning her estate in her mid-thirties.

She partners with an estate planning attorney, and together they draft a revocable living trust with Ashley’s preferred beneficiaries and charities in mind, figure out guardianship for her two sons in case she and her husband pass suddenly, and settle on an appropriate beneficiary for her life insurance policy. Now that she knows where her assets will go after her death, Ashley rests easy assuming there’s nothing more that needs doing in her estate plan.

Save your family from obstacles and conundrums

But forty years down the road, Ashley’s children realize her MCI is developing into Alzheimer’s. Although she’s occasionally visited with her attorney to make adjustments to her plan,  she never added any provisions for how she wanted her children and other guardians to handle a situation like this. Here’s where things get complicated.

Ashley did not work with her estate planning attorney to put disability provisions into her trust and never worked with an insurance professional to purchase adequate income insurance or long-term care insurance. The care she requires to live her best life possible with cognitive impairment doesn’t come cheap. Those mounting care costs will likely quickly erode Ashley’s estate. As a result, her estate plan may no longer work as intended, since it no longer lines up with her actual asset portfolio.

But since Ashley does not have the ability to rework her estate plan in her current mental state, her family is left with the burden of figuring out what to do while navigating a complex and bureaucratic legal system in the guardianship or conservatorship court. No one in the family really knows what Ashley’s wishes are regarding both serious medical decisions and financial changes. All Ashley’s family wants is to see her enjoying her remaining years in peace and security, but they are now tasked with using guesswork to make difficult choices on her behalf while a guardianship or conservatorship court watches every move.

There are several alternatives to a court-supervised guardianship or conservatorship, but they involve advanced planning – either when you complete your estate plan, or later before the onset of such impairments.  After Alzheimer’s has made it impossible for you to have legal capacity to sign documents, it is unlikely you’re circumstances will ever improve so that you parents will find you old.

Give us a call today

Factoring the potential for cognitive impairment into your estate plan doesn’t have to be a headache. In fact, a little effort now by legally designating who you want to be in charge and what you want them to do can have a wonderful impact on you and your family later on. We can work together to ensure your estate plan is ready for whatever life throws your way. Give us a call today to find out how painless and cost-effective this process can be.

Avoid Living Probate: How to Keep Guardians and Conservators Out of Your Estate

While most long term care and estate planning to avoid guardianship - elder law attorney or estate planning attorneyproactive individuals know the importance of having a well-rounded estate plan, it is typically considered as something that will take effect
after they have passed away. But there are in fact many ways in which comprehensive estate planning can have a positive impact on your life while you are still around to reap the benefits.

Planning for Incapacity

Most people who reach old age come to a point at which they are no longer in a position to handle all of their affairs on their own. In many cases this incapacity is due to dementia or other cognitive impairments associated with the elderly. At that point, the decisions they’ve made with their estate planning attorney can have major repercussions on their lifestyle and the handling of their wealth.

Take Alex for example. Long before Alex retired from his long and successful career as an IT manager at a large corporation, he put a cursory estate plan in place with a will detailing who would get which of his assets upon his death. But, Alex didn’t update his plan as he aged. In his late seventies, he developed Alzheimer’s and it became unclear to his family how to proceed with his medical care and wealth management. Since Alex did not formally choose an individual to be in control of his affairs in the event of incapacity, it falls upon the court to appoint a guardian or conservator. Unfortunately, that’s where things get complicated.

What is guardianship?

Guardianship goes by a few other names, so it’s important to get familiar with various terms used to indicate similar and somewhat overlapping concepts. The other terms you may hear include “conservatorship,” “plenary guardianship,” and “living probate.”

It’s important to note that these terms are used in slightly different manners from state-to-state, with some states using “guardian” and “conservator” interchangeably. Others maintain the distinction of a guardian being a person who makes decisions about medical care and living arrangements, whereas a conservator makes decisions about property and assets. In either case, the guardian or conservator is essentially a substitute decision maker that’s authorized by the court to make decisions on behalf of the incapacitated person.

3 Reasons You Should Avoid It

In the process of living probate, the court tries to settle on solutions that will fit the incapacitated individual’s best interests. That being said, there is a much better way. Here are just a few of the reasons guardianship and conservatorship are not ideal fallbacks:

  1. Cost: To put it simply, living probate is expensive. The legal fees associated with court-appointed attorneys representing incapacitated individuals can chip away at their estates very quickly. Living probate also brings your affairs into the public sector.
  1. Privacy: Alex may not have wanted his family to have to experience the financial and emotional costs of his living probate court proceedings, but he may also have felt less than enthusiastic about his personal affairs being discussed in a public forum.
  1. Clarity: In addition to it being costly and a compromise of privacy, living probate is also full of guesswork. If Alex had assigned powers of attorney and established long-term care provisions in his estate plan, his affairs would be handled exactly as he wished in the event of his incapacity. When the court is involved, they usually apply default rules of state law, which means the legislature is essentially making some choices for you and your family.

How to Structure Your Estate Plan

So what does an individual like Alex need to do in order to avoid the chance of his family having to go through living probate? There are a few specific steps we can take to make in planning your estate to ensure your affairs never end up in a court-appointed guardian’s hands:

  • Powers of attorney: A complete estate plan includes named powers of attorney who will fulfill the roles of guardians and conservators in the event of your incapacity. The difference is that these individuals will be chosen by you rather than by the court. There are a number of different types of powers of attorney for specific purposes, such as a healthcare power of attorney or a general durable power of attorney, the latter of which controls the management of your finances.
  • Long-term care planning: Although you may never need long-term care, building a strategy for it into your estate plan will allow you to relax knowing that you’ll receive long-term care according to your wishes if that becomes necessary. This type of planning also helps protect the assets in your estate plan from being used up on medical expenses before going to your beneficiaries.

Avoiding guardianship and conservatorship through living probate is a relatively pain-free process if handled well ahead of time. Get in touch with us today to go over the parts of your estate plan that may need amending to give you and your family the best possible outcomes. We are here to help and can quickly get your estate plan in optimal shape.

florida durable power of attorney, elder law attorney and lawyer

Sign a Power of Attorney Before It’s Too Late

durable power of attorney by elder law attorney and lawyerIn my last post to this blog, I explained why it is so important to put in place a durable power of attorney.  In this post, I want to emphasize why it is important to get that power of attorney in place before you need it.  If you wait until you need it, you’ll be too late.

Why Do I Need A Durable Power of Attorney?

As we discussed in that prior post, a durable power of attorney is an extremely important estate planning tool, even more important than a will in many cases.  This crucial document allows a person you appoint — your “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” — to act in place of you — the “principal” — for financial, business and legal, purposes when and if you ever become incapacitated due to dementia or some other reason, such as a stroke, heart attack, automobile accident, or other reasons that might arise.  The agent under the durable power of attorney can quickly step in and take care of your affairs.

To properly execute a power of attorney and name an agent to stand in your shoes, you need to have legal capacity.  Regrettably, many people delay completing this vital estate planning step until it’s too late and they no longer legally have the capacity for signing the document and giving it full legal effect.  Won’t wait until its too late!

What Happens If You Do Not Have A Durable Power of Attorney?

What happens then? Without a properly executed durable power of attorney, no one can represent you unless a court appoints a conservator or guardian. That court process takes lots of time, costs lots of money, and the judge may not choose the person you would prefer. In addition, under a guardianship or conservatorship, the representative may have to seek court permission to take planning steps, make long term care decisions, engage in basic financial transactions, that your agent could implement immediately with a properly executed simple durable power of attorney.  In effect, the judge, or the person appointed by the judge as your guardian, will be “in charge” of determining what issues are brought to the probate judge’s attention.  Either the judge or the guardian will be making decisions that may have a profound effect on you and your family.  No one really wants to be the subject of a guardianship.

This is why it’s so important that you have a durable power of attorney in place before the capacity to sign the document becomes an issue.  The standard for legal capacity with respect to durable powers of attorney varies from state to state. Some courts and lawyers argue that this threshold can be quite low: that you need only know that you trust the agent to manage your financial affairs. Others argue that since the agent generally has the right to enter into contracts on behalf of the principal, the principal should have the capacity to enter into contracts as well, and the threshold for entering into contracts is fairly high.  In Florida, you must show that the person signing the durable power of attorney has the capacity, and does in fact understand, who are the natural objects of his or her estate (the identity of children, grandchildren, etc.), and the nature, approximate value, and the extent of the estate assets.

How Do I Choose An Agent to Act on My Behalf?

If you do not have someone you trust to appoint as your agent, it may be more appropriate to have the probate court looking over the shoulder of the person who is handling your affairs through a guardianship or conservatorship. In that case, you may want to sign a limited durable power of attorney that simply nominates the person you want to serve as your conservator or guardian. Most states require the court to respect your nomination “except for good cause or disqualification.”

Because you need a third party to assess capacity and because you need to be certain that the formal legal requirements are followed, it can be risky to prepare and execute legal documents on your own without representation by an attorney. To sign a durable power of attorney before it’s too late, contact a local experienced elder law attorney.

Can I Prepare My Own Power of Attorney?

If you insist on preparing your own Florida durable power of attorney, without the assistance of a Florida attorney because you don’t want to meet with one or pay for one, we actually offer a power of attorney for you to prepare online that complies with all of the changes in the Florida power of attorney statute that was completely rewritten in 2011.  We review your input for that power of attorney so that you can know that it will be enforceable in Florida.

Durable power of attorney in Florida by experienced elder law lawyer

Top Reasons Everyone Needs a Comprehensive Power of Attorney

Florida durable power of attorney formThe benefits of a highly detailed, comprehensive durable power of attorney are numerous. Unfortunately, many powers of attorney are more general in nature and can actually cause more problems than they solve, especially for seniors. This post highlights the benefits of a comprehensive, detailed durable power of attorney, including some of the provisions that should be included. A proper starting point is to emphasize that the proper use of a durable power of attorney as an estate planning and elder law document depends on the reliability and honesty of the appointed agent.

The agent under a power of attorney has traditionally been called an “attorney-in-fact” or sometimes just “attorney.” However, confusion over these terms has encouraged the terminology to change so more recent state statutes tend to use the label “agent” for the person receiving power by the document.

The “law of agency” governs the agent under a durable power of attorney. The law of agency is the body of statutes and common law court decisions built up over centuries that dictate how and to what degree an agent is authorized to act on behalf of the “principal”—in other words, the individual who has appointed the agent to represent him or her.

Powers of attorney are a species of agency-creating document. In most states, powers of attorney can be and most often are unilateral contracts – that is, signed only by the principal, but accepted by the agent by the act of performance.

Much has been written about financial exploitation of individuals, particularly seniors and other vulnerable people, by people who take advantage of them through undue influence, hidden transactions, identity theft and the like.

Many articles in the legal arena have addressed guardianships and conservatorships in Florida and discussed the benefits of court supervision of care of vulnerable people in such contexts. Even though exploitation risks exist, there are great benefits to one individual (the principal) privately empowering another person (the agent) to act on the principal’s behalf to perform certain financial functions.

A comprehensive durable power of attorney may include a grant of power for the agent to represent and advocate for the principal in regard to health care decisions. Such health care powers are more commonly addressed in a separate “health care power of attorney,” which may be a distinct document or combined with other health topics in an “advance health care directive.”

Another important preliminary consideration about powers of attorney is “durability.”  “Durability” or a “durable” power of attorney is one that does not lose its legal effectiveness in the event the principal becomes incapacitated.

Powers of attorney are voluntary delegations of authority by the principal to the agent. The principal has not given up his or her own power to do these same functions but has granted legal authority to the agent to perform various tasks on the principal’s behalf. All states have adopted a “durability” statute that allows principals to include in their powers of attorney a simple declaration that no power granted by the principal in this document will become invalid upon the subsequent mental incapacity of the principal. The result is a “durable power of attorney” – a document that continues to be valid until a stated termination date or event occurs, or the principal dies. Absent durability provisions, the power of attorney terminates upon the principal’s death or incapacity.

Having covered the explanation of what a durable power of attorney is, let us look at the top benefits of having a comprehensive durable power of attorney.

1. Provides the ability to choose who will make decisions for you (rather than a court).

If someone has signed a durable power of attorney and later becomes incapacitated and unable to make decisions, the agent named can step into the shoes of the incapacitated person and make important financial decisions. Without a durable power of attorney, a guardianship or conservatorship may need to be established, and can be very expensive and intrusive.  It also removes from the family the final authority over the incapacitated party’s family members and shifts it to the guardianship judge.

2. Avoids the necessity of a guardianship or conservatorship.

Someone who does not have a comprehensive durable power of attorney at the time they become incapacitated would have no alternative than to have someone else petition the court to appoint a guardian or conservator. The court will choose who is appointed to manage the financial and/or health affairs of the incapacitated person, and the court will continue to monitor the situation as long as the incapacitated person is alive. While not only a costly process, another detriment is the fact that the incapacitated person has no input on who will be appointed to serve.



3. Provides family members a good opportunity to discuss wishes and desires.

durable power of attorney for childThere is much thought and consideration that goes into the creation of a comprehensive durable power of attorney. One of the most important decisions is who will serve as the agent. When a parent or loved one makes the decision to sign a power of attorney, it is a good opportunity for the parent to discuss wishes and expectations with the family and, in particular, the person named as agent in the power of attorney.



4. The more comprehensive the durable power of attorney, the better.

As people age, their needs change and their power of attorney should reflect that. Seniors have concerns about long-term care, applying for government benefits to pay for care, as well as choosing the proper care providers. Without allowing, the agent to perform these tasks and more, precious time and money may be wasted.

5. Prevents questions about principal’s intent.

Many of us have read about court battles over a person’s intent once that person has become incapacitated. A well-drafted durable power of attorney, along with other health care directives, can eliminate the need for family members to argue or disagree over a loved one’s wishes. Once written down, this document is excellent evidence of their intent and is difficult to dispute.


6. Prevents delays in asset protection planning.

A comprehensive durable power of attorney should include all of the powers required to do effective asset protection planning in the event of incapacity. If the power of attorney does not include a specific power, it can greatly dampen the agent’s ability to complete the planning and could result in thousands of dollars lost. While some powers of attorney seem long, it is necessary to include all of the powers necessary to carry out proper planning.  Importantly, if the durable power of attorney does not have certain specific provisions involving “special” powers, as defined by the Florida durable power of attorney statute, it may result in the denial of Medicaid benefits to pay for long term care.  Thus it is critical that the durable power of attorney, especially in Florida, be prepared in accordance with the Florida power of attorney statute.

7. Protects the agent from claims of financial abuse.

Comprehensive durable powers of attorney often allow the agent to make substantial gifts to self or others in order to carry out asset protection planning objectives. Without the power of attorney authorizing this, the agent (often a family member) could be at risk for financial abuse allegations.  In Florida, without specifically providing in the durable power of attorney for the special power of gifting to the agent, or other family members, the agent will not have the authority to engage in gifting – with potential tax and long term care consequences.

8. Allows agents to talk to other agencies.

An agent under a power of attorney is often in the position of trying to reconcile bank charges, make arrangements for health care, engage professionals for services to be provided to the principal, and much more. Without a comprehensive durable power of attorney giving authority to the agent, many companies will refuse to disclose any information or provide services to the incapacitated person. This can result in a great deal of frustration on the part of the family, as well as lost time and money – and the specter of establishing a court supervised guardianship.

9. Allows an agent to perform planning and transactions to make the principal eligible for public benefits.

One could argue that transferring assets from the principal to others in order to make the principal eligible for public benefits–Medicaid and/or non-service-connected Veterans Administration benefits–is not in the best interests of the principal, but rather in the best interests of the transferees. In fact, one reason that a comprehensive durable power of attorney is essential in elder law is that a Judge may not be willing to authorize a guardian to protect assets for others while enhancing the ward/protected person’s eligibility for public benefits. However, that may have been the wish of the incapacitated person and one that would remain unfulfilled if a durable power of attorney were not in place.



10. Provides immediate access to critical assets.

A well-crafted durable power of attorney includes provisions that allow the agent to access critical assets, such as the principal’s digital assets or safety deposit box, to continue to pay bills, access funds, etc. in a timely manner. Absent these provisions, court approval will be required before anyone can access these assets. Digital assets are also important because older powers of attorney did not address digital assets, yet more and more individuals have digital accounts.  The statutes and case law surrounding durable powers of attorney is ever changing.  Consequently, durable powers of attorney should be reviewed regularly to determine whether changes in the law might adversely affect the usability of the power of attorney.

11. Provides peace of mind for everyone involved.

Taking the time to sign a power of attorney lessens the burden on family members who would otherwise have to go to court to get authority for performing basic tasks, like writing a check or arranging for home health services. Knowing this has been taken care of in advance is of great comfort to families and loved ones.

Conclusion

Florida Durable Power of Attorney Helps the ElderlyThis discussion of the Reasons Why Everyone Needs a Comprehensive Power of Attorney could be expanded by many more. Which benefits are most important depends on the situation of the principal and their loved ones. This is why a comprehensive durable power of attorney is so essential: Nobody can predict exactly which powers will be needed in the future. The planning goal is to have a power of attorney in place that empowers a succession of trustworthy agents to do whatever needs to be done in the future. Please call us if we can be of assistance in any way or if you have any questions about durable powers of attorney.  You can obtain a durable power of attorney that contains the basic requirements for compliance online through this website by going to this page.  If you would like to develop a durable power of attorney that is specifically tailored for your needs, and the needs of your family, call and schedule a consultation, either office, telephonically or through email, and we’ll help you get one that fits your specific needs.

To comply with the U.S. Treasury regulations, we must inform you that (i) any U.S. federal tax advice contained in this newsletter was not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, by any person for the purpose of avoiding U.S. federal tax penalties that may be imposed on such person and (ii) each taxpayer should seek advice from their tax advisor based on the taxpayer’s particular circumstances.