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Part 2: Use Estate Planning to Avoid Adult Guardianship and Elder Abuse

Part 2: Use Estate Planning to Avoid Adult Guardianship and Elder Abuse

In  Part 1 of this series, we discussed how some professional adult guardians have used their powers to abuse the seniors placed under their care. Here, we’ll discuss how seniors can use estate planning to avoid the potential abuse and other negative consequences of court-ordered guardianship.

As our senior population continues to expand, an increasing number of elder abuse cases involving professional guardians have made headlines. The New Yorker exposed one of the most shocking accounts of elder abuse by professional guardians, which took place in Nevada and saw more than 150 seniors swindled out of their life savings by a corrupt Las Vegas guardianship agency.

The Las Vegas case and others like it have shed light on a disturbing new phenomenon—individuals who seek guardianship to take control of the lives of vulnerable seniors and use their money and other assets for personal gain. Perhaps the scariest aspect of such abuse is that many seniors who fall prey to these unscrupulous guardians have loving and caring family members who are unable to protect them.

In Part 1 this series, we detailed how criminally minded individuals can take advantage of an overloaded court system and seize total control of seniors’ lives and financial assets by gaining court-ordered guardianship. Here we’ll discuss how seniors and their adult children can use proactive estate planning to prevent this from happening.

It’s important to note that any adult could face court-ordered guardianship if they become incapacitated by illness or injury, so it’s critical that every person over age 18—not just seniors—put these planning vehicles in place to prepare for a potential incapacity.

Keep your family out of court and out of conflict

Outside of the potential for abuse by professional guardians, if you become incapacitated and your family is forced into court seeking guardianship, your family is likely to endure a costly, drawn out, and emotionally taxing ordeal. Not only will the legal fees and court costs drain your estate and possibly delay your medical treatment, but if your loved ones disagree over who’s best suited to serve as your guardian, it could cause bitter conflict that could unnecessarily tear your family apart.

Furthermore, if your loved ones disagree over who should be your guardian, the court could decide that naming one of your relatives would be too disruptive to your family’s relationships and appoint a professional guardian instead—and as we’ve seen, this could open the door to potential abuse.

Planning for incapacity

The potential turmoil and expense, or even risk of abuse, from a court-ordered guardianship can be easily avoided through proactive estate planning. Upon your incapacity, an effective plan would give the individual, or individuals, of your choice immediate authority to make your medical, financial, and legal decisions, without the need for court intervention. What’s more, the plan can provide clear guidance about your wishes, so there’s no mistake about how these crucial decisions should be made during your incapacity.

There are a variety of planning tools available to grant this decision-making authority, but a will is not one of them. A will only goes into effect upon your death, and even then, it simply governs how your assets should be divided. To this end, a will does nothing to keep your family out of court and out of conflict in the event of your incapacity—nor does it help you avoid the potential for abuse by professional guardians.
Your incapacity plan shouldn’t be just a single document. It should include a variety of planning tools, including some, or all, of the following:

  • Healthcare power of attorney: An advanced directive that grants an individual of your choice the immediate legal authority to make decisions about your medical treatment in the event of your incapacity.
  • Living will: An advanced directive that provides specific guidance about how your medical decisions should be made during your incapacity.
  • Durable financial power of attorney: A planning document that grants an individual of your choice the immediate authority to make decisions related to the management of your financial and legal interests.
  • Revocable living trust: A planning document that immediately transfers control of all assets held by the trust to a person of your choosing to be used for your benefit in the event of your incapacity. The trust can include legally binding instructions for how your care should be managed and even spell out specific conditions that must be met for you to be deemed incapacitated.
  • Family/friends meeting: Even more important than all of the documents we’ve listed here, the very best protection for you and the people you love is to ensure everyone is on the same page. As part of our planning process, we’ll walk the people impacted by your plan through a meeting that explains to them the plans you’ve made, why you’ve made them, and what to do when something happens to you. With a team of people who love you, watching out for you and what matters most, the risk of abuse from a professional guardian is low.

It could be a good idea (though it’s not mandatory) to name different people for each of the roles in your planning documents. In this way, not only will you spread out the responsibility among multiple individuals, but you’ll ensure you have more than just one person invested in your care and supervision. In that case, it’s even more critical that everyone you’ve named understands the choices you’ve made, and why you have made them.

Don’t wait to put your plan in place

It’s vital to understand that these planning documents must be created well before you become incapacitated. You must be able to clearly express your wishes and consent in order for these planning strategies to be valid, as even slight levels of dementia or confusion could get them thrown out of court.

Not to mention, an unforeseen illness or injury could strike at any time, at any age, so don’t wait—contact us right away to get your incapacity plan taken care of.

It’s crucial that you regularly review and update these planning tools to keep pace with life changes, including changes in your assets or the nature of your relationships. If any of the individuals you’ve named becomes unable or unwilling to serve for whatever reason, you’ll need to revise your plan. We can help with that, too.

Retain control even if you lose control

To avoid the total loss of autonomy, family conflict, and potential for abuse that comes with a court-ordered adult guardianship, meet with us. While you can’t prevent your potential incapacity, you can use estate planning to ensure that you at least have some control over your how your life and assets will be managed if it ever does occur.

If you haven’t planned for your incapacity, schedule a Planning Session right away, so we can advise you about the proper planning vehicles to put in place. And if you already have an incapacity plan, we can review it to make sure it’s been properly set up, maintained, and updated.

This article is a service of Myrna Serrano Setty, Esq. Myrna doesn’t just draft documents, she helps you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That’s why we offer a Planning Session, during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. Call our office today to schedule a Planning Session. Mention this article and learn how to get this $500 session at no charge.

Use Estate Planning to Avoid Adult Guardianship and Elder Abuse

Guardianship: Keeping Up With the Kardashians

You might not be a big fan of this famous family, but the Kardashians recently demonstrated impressive wisdom in protecting their minor children using estate planning.

During a recent episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Khloé Kardashian was preparing to give birth to her first child, daughter True. Khloé was second-guessing her first choice to name her sister Kourtney as the child’s legal guardian in case anything ever happened to her or the baby’s father.

During her pregnancy, Khloé spent a lot of time with her other sister Kim and her family. Watching her interacting with her own kids, Khloé really connected with Kim’s mothering style and pondered if she might be a better choice as guardian.

“I always thought Kourtney would be the godparent of my child, but lately I’ve been watching Kim, and she’s been someone I really gravitate to as a mom,” Khloé said.

To make things more challenging, Kourtney always assumed she’d be named guardian and said as much. Over the years, Khloé had lots of fun times with Kourtney and her family. So Kourtney thought her own passion for motherhood would make her the natural choice.

For guidance, Khloé asked her mother, Kris Jenner, how she chose her kids’ guardians. Kris’ answer was to compare how her two sisters’ raised their own children.

“You just have to think,” Kris told her, “‘Where would I want my child raised, in which environment? Who would I feel like my baby is going to be most comfortable and most loved?’”

In the end, Khloé chose Kim over Kourtney. She explained her decision had nothing to do with her respect or love of Kourtney. But it was merely about which style of parenting she felt most comfortable with.

“Watching Kim be a mom, I really respect her parenting skills—not that I don’t respect Kourtney’s, I just relate to how Kim parents more,” said Khloé. “I just have to make the best decision for my daughter.”

Lessons learned

Khloé’s actions are admirable for several reasons. First off, far too many parents never get around to legally naming a guardian to care for their children in the event of their death or incapacity. Khloé not only made her choice, but she did so before the child was even born.

Khloé also took the time to speak and spend time with her sisters beforehand, so the family understood the rationale behind her decision. Khloé was lucky her choices were close family members, so she had ample opportunity to experience both of their parenting styles.

Depending on your life situation, you might not be able to spend that much time vetting your choice. But at the very least, you should sit down with each of your top candidates to openly and intimately discuss what you’d expect of them as your child’s new parents.

Avoid conflict and court

Furthermore, with multiple family members vying for the guardian role, Khloé’s quick action may have prevented a potential nightmare. If she’d delayed naming a guardian and something happened to her, Kourtney, Kim, and even other family members could’ve gone to court seeking guardianship of her daughter.

This could have led to years of contentious legal battles that not only cost the family huge sums of money, but the potential hardship imposed on the children can be incalculable. Even if you think something like this would never happen to your family, why take the risk, especially when it’s so easy to avoid?

Get started now

While the Kardashians are rich and famous, you too can provide the exact same level of protection for your kids, even with minimal financial resources. It’s important as soon as it’s physically possible to choose someone who will step in to raise your children if you cannot. You must also legally document your choice and make sure the individual you’ve selected knows what to do if they’re called upon.

Many parents have no idea how to go about making this critical decision, much less create a legally binding plan, so they never get around to doing it. And even parents who have legally named a guardian (even with a lawyer’s help) often make at least one of six common mistakes that leave their children at risk.

That’s because most lawyers aren’t aware of all that’s involved with planning for the well-being and care of minor children after their parents’ death or incapacity. But at Myrna Serrano Setty, P.A., we’re dedicated to legal planning for the unique needs of families with young children.

And if you’ve already named guardians on your own or with a lawyer, we can review your existing legal documents. We’ll determine whether you’ve made any of the six common mistakes that leave your kids vulnerable and help you fill those gaps.

Beyond naming legal guardians,  can create a comprehensive estate plan with all of the necessary legal documents to ensure the protection and well-being of your entire family and assets, no matter what happens. Contact us now.

 

What You Need To Know About Guardianship

Whether through illness, injury, or other means, anyone can require a guardian to become appointed if they become mentally incapacitated. In such cases, if there is no estate planning in place (or insufficient planning) to keep family or other loved one’s out of court, a guardianship, or conservatorship as it is sometimes called, must be established via a court process in the county probate court.

Obtaining guardianship can be an extraordinarily challenging and expensive process. It begins with filing a petition in court for guardianship and requesting the court declare the incapacitated person incompetent. In some cases, these types of filings are made “ex parte”, or in secret, and a guardianship can be established before family or close friends even know what’s happening. In other cases, such a filing can result in a heated dispute between family members and/or friends, who may claim they’d be better suited for the role. Given this, things can get quite costly very quickly.

Of course, this assumes these matters haven’t already been decided through proper and up-to-date estate planning, including a valid durable power of attorney and advance health care directives, which are the best methods for ensuring this massive responsibility is handled as effectively as possible. Sadly, most people don’t think of the costly possibility of incapacity and therefore leave their families at risk.

If you do have a loved one who needs a guardian, here are some of the things you’ll need to know:

Who can be appointed as guardian?
Unless specified in a valid legal document, any family member or other interested person can petition for guardianship—even a close friend can do it if they prove they’re best suited for the position. That said, most courts give preference to the ward’s spouse or other close family members. In some cases, the guardian is required to post a bond, which typically requires good credit and some level of deposit to be held in the event of the guardian’s wrongdoing. This bond requirement often disqualifies friends and family, who either don’t have good credit or the resources to post a bond.

If a relative or friend is not willing—or capable—of serving, the court will appoint a professional guardian or public guardian. This is one of the ways that an estate can be drained extremely quickly. If you want to hear more about how this can happen, read this terrifying article about the way public and professional guardians are stealing from our elders.

When are guardians appointed?
A guardian will only be appointed if a court determines there is enough evidence to show a person is mentally incapacitated, such that they can no longer make legal, financial, and/or health-care decisions.

What are a guardian’s responsibilities?
Depending on the extent of the ward’s mental capacity, a court-appointed guardian can be given near complete control over a person’s life and finances. Some of the most common duties include:

  • Paying the ward’s bills
  • Determining where they live
  • Monitoring their residence and living conditions
  • Providing consent for medical treatments
  • Deciding how their finances are handled, including how their assets are invested and if any assets should be liquidated
  • Managing real estate and other tangible personal property
  • Keeping detailed records of all their expenditures and other financial transactions
  • Making end-of-life and other palliative-care decisions
  • Reporting to the court about the ward’s status at least annually

The extent of duties the guardian is responsible for is up to the court, and the guardian will not be allowed to act in areas the court has not authorized. Moreover, guardians are required to seek the ward’s preferences whenever possible—though ultimately, the decision about what action to take will be in the guardian’s hands.

The court can also divide out responsibilities to multiple parties. For example, one person may oversee the financial decisions, while another handles living arrangements and health-care decisions. What’s more, the court often requires detailed status reports, such as financial accounting, at regular intervals or whenever important decisions are made, such as the sale of assets.

Are guardians paid?
Yes, guardians are entitled to reasonable compensation for their services based on the ward’s financial ability to pay. The appointed guardian is paid directly from the ward’s estate. In most cases, the compensation must be approved by the court ahead of time, and the guardian must carefully account for all of their services, the time spent on tasks on behalf of the ward, and any associated out-of-pocket expenses.

Given the huge level of responsibility and loss of control that comes with guardianship, the best course of action would be to get proper and updated estate planning in place ahead of time to ensure that if you or anyone you love becomes incapacitated, you can stay out of the court process altogether if possible.

Contact our firm to schedule a Planning Session—first for yourself—and then for the people you love before something happens to make it too late to plan. If it’s already too late and you’re reading this article because you need help petitioning a court for guardianship, contact us now to mitigate the risks, hassles, and expense.

This article is a service of attorney Myrna Serrano Setty. Myrna doesn’t just draft documents, she helps you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and your loved ones. That’s why Myrna offers a Planning Session during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before, and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $500 session at no charge.