What Is a Conservatorship?

A conservator is appointed by a judge. This person handles the estate of an incapacitated adult, as well as their finances, their basic affairs and everyday care. Administrative matters such as Medicare, insurance, pensions, and medical coverage are all also managed by the conservator. The conservator must keep meticulous records that are subject to review by the judge.

The Advocate’s recent article entitled “Alzheimer’s Q&A: What is adult guardianship?” explains that a conservatorship typically lasts as long as the individual lives. The conservator may change because of death, relocation, or an inability to manage the conservator duties and responsibilities. A judge also has the power to replace the conservator, if he or she is repeatedly making poor decisions or neglecting required responsibilities.

A conservator can be wise in some situations because it lets family members know that someone is making the decisions. It also provides clear legal authority to deal with third parties. There is also a process in which a judge will approve any major decisions. However, appointing a conservator can be expensive. An experienced estate planning attorney or elder law attorney must complete court paperwork and attend court hearings. A conservatorship can also be time-consuming due to the required ongoing paperwork.

A big question is when it is appropriate to seek conservatorship. If the individual has become mentally or physically incapable of making important decisions for himself or herself, then it would be smart to have a court-appointed guardian. Moreover, if the person does not already have legal documents in place, like a living will or power of attorney, then the conservatorship would benefit in covering decisions about personal and financial matters.

Even if the individual has a power of attorney for both health care and finances, he or she might need a conservator to make decisions about his or her personal life. This can include topics, such as living arrangements and who is allowed to visit. It is not always easy to determine if an individual can make decisions, but a judge understands that a conservator is viable for those with advanced Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

Families that want to set up a conservatorship need to file formal legal papers and participate in a court hearing before a judge. Evidence of the physical and mental condition of the individual requiring conservatorship must be clearly presented. The person who is the subject of the conservatorship has the opportunity to contest it. Ask an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney who specializes in conservatorships about your specific situation.

Reference: The Advocate (Jan. 25, 2021) “Alzheimer’s Q&A: What is adult guardianship?”

 

How to Plan for a ‘Fragile’ Beneficiary

Frequently, estate plans will include an inheritance for a minor beneficiary. If you have minor children, you should spell out exactly what you want as far as who will care for your children and how your children’s financial needs will be met.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Handle with care: Tips on planning for the fragile beneficiary” explains that if a minor child inherits property outright, the court will usually appoint a conservator to handle the property until the minor reaches 18. Because of this some parents make use of a trust which lets the assets be available for a minor’s benefit but held under terms you set when establishing the trust. A trustee oversees this. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you in setting up an estate plan to establish a trust.

A beneficiary with a disability. In some cases, a loved one with a disability may be receiving needs-based government benefits. To make certain that an inheritance doesn’t disrupt those benefits, many parents or guardians ask an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney to create a special needs trust (SNT). This is an irrevocable discretionary trust created by the parent in many cases for the benefit of a child with special needs. When set up correctly, the special needs trust won’t be considered an available resource for the purpose of determining eligibility for needs-based government benefits.

Incentive planning. Another aspect of estate planning is to use your assets to influence your loved one’s values and future behavior. A trust with incentive or disincentive provisions may help guide the choices and actions of your family, even after you have died.

Advanced planning for successful beneficiaries. If you plan to leave assets to a beneficiary who has the potential to incur significant personal liability due to his or her profession, ask your estate planning attorney about an irrevocable discretionary lifetime trust. If an inheritance is left to such a person without any protections, it may be attached by a judgment creditor upon distribution. A successful beneficiary may also need tax planning. If the beneficiary’s inheritance is properly left in a lifetime trust with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney, it may be removed from his or her taxable estate for federal estate tax purposes.

Although estate planning may be thought of as a way to transfer your assets to your family in a tax-efficient manner, it is also a way in which you can motivate, and at times protect, your loved ones.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Dec. 22, 2020) “Handle with care: Tips on planning for the fragile beneficiary”

 

What are Options for Powers of Attorney?

Power of attorney (POA) documents are an important component of an estate plan. There are four types. You should review each carefully to see which one will work best for you in your situation. What is required for a power of attorney, depends upon what power you want to authorize, says Carmel’s Hamlet Hub in a recent article titled “4 Types of Power of Attorney.”

Limited Power of Attorney. If you need someone to act on your behalf for a limited purpose, use a limited power of attorney. This will specify the date/time after which the power no longer is in effect.

General Power of Attorney. This is an all-encompassing power of attorney, in which you assign every power and right you possess as an individual to a certain party. It’s typically used where the principal is incapacitated. It is also used with those who don’t have the time, skills, knowledge, or energy to handle all of their financial matters. The power you assign is in effect for your lifetime, or until you are incapacitated (unless it is also “durable”). However, you can elect to rescind it before then.

Durable Power of Attorney. The key distinction with a durable power of attorney is that it stays in effect, even after you’ve become incapacitated. Therefore, you want to sign a durable power of attorney if: (i) you want to give the designated agent authority ONLY if you’re unable to act for yourself; or (ii) you want to give the agent immediate authority that continues after you’re unable to act for yourself. You need to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss these different types of powers.

Note that a limited or general power of attorney ends when you become incapacitated. At that point, a court will appoint a guardian or conservator to handle your matters. You can rescind a durable power of attorney at any time prior to becoming incapacitated.

Springing Power of Attorney. This document serves the same purpose as a durable power of attorney, but it’s effective only upon your becoming incapacitated. When drafting this, your experienced estate planning attorney will help you make clear your definition of “incapacitated.”

Remember that you’ll need to state in your power of attorney document which powers and duties you are assigning to the attorney-in-fact.

Regardless of the type of power of attorney you implement, the attorney-in-fact has the power to do only what your POA indicates. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss the different types of powers and which would apply to your circumstances.

Reference: Carmel’s Hamlet Hub (Dec. 16, 2020) “4 Types of Power of Attorney”

 

What Happens If I Don’t Fund My Trust?

Trust funding is a crucial step in estate planning that many people forget to do. However, if it’s done properly, funding will avoid probate and provide for you in the event of your incapacity and save on estate taxes.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” looks at some of the benefits of trusts.

Avoiding probate and problems with your estate. If you’ve created a revocable trust, you have control over the trust and can modify it during your lifetime. You are also able to fund it, while you are alive. You can fund the trust now or on your death. If you don’t transfer assets to the trust during your lifetime, then your last will must be probated, and an executor of your estate should be appointed. The executor will then have the authority to transfer the assets to your trust. This may take time and will involve court. You can avoid this by transferring assets to your trust now, saving your family time and aggravation after your death.

Protecting you and your family in the event that you become incapacitated. Funding the trust now will let the successor trustee manage the assets for you and your family, if your become incapacitated. If a successor trustee doesn’t have access to the assets to manage on your behalf, a conservator may need to be appointed by the court to oversee your assets which can be expensive and time consuming.

Taking advantage of estate tax savings. If you’re married, you may have created a trust that contains terms for estate tax savings. This will often delay estate taxes until the death of the second spouse, by providing income to the surviving spouse and access to principal during his or her lifetime while the ultimate beneficiaries are your children. Depending where you live, the trust can also reduce state estate taxes. You must fund your trust to make certain that these estate tax provisions work properly.

Remember that any asset transfer will need to be consistent with your estate plan. Your beneficiary designations on life insurance policies should be examined to determine if the beneficiary can be updated to the trust. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you.

You may also want to move tangible items to the trust, as well as any closely held business interests, such as stock in a family business or an interest in a limited liability company (LLC). Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the assets to transfer to your trust. Fund your trust now to maximize your updated estate planning documents.

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”

 

How Do I Include Care for My Children in Estate Planning?

To make certain that parents’ wishes are followed, they should create a will that designates a guardian and a conservator in case both parents die, counsels The Choteau (MT) Acantha article entitled “Plan for children’s future when making out a will.” 

A guardianship provides for the care of the children until they reach adulthood (usually age 18) and gives the guardian the authority and responsibility of a parent. A guardian makes decisions about a child’s well-being, education and health. A conservatorship is designed to manage and distribute funds and assets left to children until they’re age 18. A single individual can be appointed to do both roles or separate people can be designated as guardian and conservator.

Frequently, the toughest decisions parents have is agreeing who they want to have the responsibility of raising their children and managing their money. Usually they select a person with similar values, lifestyle and child rearing beliefs.  It can be important to talk about the issue with older children, because some states (like Montana) permit children ages 14 and older to ask a court to appoint a guardian other than the person named in parents’ wills. You should also name a backup guardian and conservator in case their first choices aren’t up to the task and review your choices periodically.

In many states, the law stipulates that when children attain the age of 18, they are able to get the property that was in the care of a conservator, no matter what their capability to manage it. Another option is to leave the assets in a trust rather than a conservatorship.  Parents can provide in their wills the property that they want to pass directly to the trust, which is also called a testamentary trust. These assets can include life insurance payments, funds from checking accounts, stocks, bonds, or other funds. Parents can create a trust agreement with an experienced estate planning attorney that provides their named trustee with the power to manage the trust assets and use the income for their children’s benefit.

The trust agreement goes into effect at the death of both parents. It says the way in which the parents want the money to be spent, who the trustee should be and when the trust ends. The trustee must follow the parents’ instructions for the children.

Reference: Choteau (MT) Acantha (May 13, 2020) “Plan for children’s future when making out a will”

 

What Can I Do to Plan for Incapacity?

Smart advance planning can help preserve family assets, provide for your own well-being and eliminate the stress and publicity of a guardianship hearing, which might be needed if you do nothing. These are just some thoughts to ponder when you are planning for incapacity.

A guardianship or conservatorship for an elderly individual is a legal relationship created when a judge appoints a person to care for an elderly person, who’s no longer able to care for herself.   The guardian has specific duties and responsibilities to the elderly person.

FEDweek’s recent article entitled “Guarding Against the Possibility of Your Incapacity” discusses several possible strategies.

Revocable (“living”) trust. Even after you transfer assets into the trust, you still have the ability to control those assets and collect any income they earn. If you no longer possess the ability to manage your own affairs, a co-trustee or successor trustee can assume management of trust assets on your behalf.

Durable power of attorney. A power of attorney (POA) document names an individual to manage your assets that aren’t held in trust. Another option is to have your estate planning attorney draft powers of attorney for financial institutions that hold assets, like a pension or IRA. Note that many financial firms are reticent to recognize powers of attorney that are not on their own forms.

Joint accounts. You can also establish a joint checking account with a trusted child or other relative. With her name on the account, your daughter can then pay your bills, if necessary. However, note that the assets held in the joint account will pass to the co-owner (daughter) at your death even if you name other heirs in your will.

There may also be health care expenses accompanying incompetency.  This would include your health insurance and also potentially disability insurance in the event your incapacity should happen when you are still be working, and long-term care insurance, to pay providers of custodial care, at home or in a specialized facility, such as a nursing home.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to review the do’s and dont’s of estate planning.

Reference: FEDweek (March 5, 2020) “Guarding Against the Possibility of Your Incapacity”

 

What are the Restrictions on Visiting the Elderly in a Care Facility?

Due to the recent pandemic, restrictions on visiting the elderly in a care facility are now in place. In Virginia started after the American Health Care Association, the largest national trade organization representing long-term care centers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance recommending extreme measures to prevent a scenario that has played out in a Washington state nursing home, where the virus spread rapidly and took many lives.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s recent article entitled “Virginia nursing homes restrict visitors over coronavirus fears, families worry about separation” says, however, that some family members and advocates worry that — without loved ones allowed to visit — residents will be even more vulnerable to neglect in nursing homes that already struggle to give them basic care.

“What we have found is that experts believe that this is the most prudent step that we can take to protect the residents,” said Keith Hare, CEO of the Virginia Health Care Association, the state chapter of the AHCA. “We have to put the health and well-being of these residents first. … It really is unprecedented action.”  However, some family members who are told that they can drop off supplies for the residents at the nursing home, cannot stay for a visit. Some are worried that parents with Alzheimer’s who need help eating won’t be fed without their regular visitors because nursing homes are understaffed.

Nursing homes in the state say it was a hard decision to cease visitation, but it was necessary to prevent any exposure in the care facilities. They’re going to do whatever we can to keep it out, official say. While nursing homes around the country are doing the same thing and are restricting group gatherings within the centers, they are trying to make sure residents are being entertained with in-room activities, such as movies, card games, and puzzles. The focus at the facilities is on communication and keeping residents entertained.

Innovative Healthcare Management, a company that runs five nursing homes in Virginia with a total of 750 residents, said that it has been educating its staff and preparing for a potential outbreak, since first learning of the coronavirus outbreak in China. IHM recently began screening visitors for possible coronavirus infection before they entered the facilities. The company decided to restrict all nonessential visitors, except when a resident is believed to be dying.  Nursing homes are trying other ways for family members to connect with residents, like phone calls and video chats.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney should you have an elder who requires preparation of estate planning documents.

Reference:  Richmond Times-Dispatch (March 15, 2020) “Virginia nursing homes restrict visitors over coronavirus fears, families worry about separation”

 

What Is So Important About Powers Of Attorney?

Powers of attorney can provide significant authority to another person, if you are unable to do so. These powers can include the right to access your bank accounts and to make decisions for you.

AARP’s article from last October entitled, “Powers of Attorney: Crucial Documents for Caregiving,” describes the different types of powers of attorney. Just like it sounds, a specific power of attorney restricts your agent to taking care of only certain tasks, such as paying bills or selling a house. This power is typically only on a temporary basis.  A general power of attorney provides your agent with sweeping authority. The agent has the authority to step into your shoes and handle all of your legal and financial affairs.

The authority of these powers of attorney can stop at the time you become incapacitated. Durable powers of attorney may be specific or general. However, the “durable” part means your agent retains the authority, even if you become physically or mentally incapacitated. In effect, your family probably won’t need to petition a court to intervene, if you have a medical crisis or have severe cognitive decline like late stage dementia.

In some instances, medical decision-making is part of a durable power of attorney for health care. This can also be addressed in a separate document that is just for health care, like a health care surrogate designation.

There are a few states that recognize “springing” durable powers of attorney. With these, the agent can begin using her authority only after you become incapacitated. Other states don’t have these, which means your agent can use the document the day you sign the durable power of attorney.

A well-drafted power of attorney helps your agent help you because she can keep the details of your life addressed, if you cannot. That can be things like applying for financial assistance or a public benefit, such as Medicaid, or verifying that your utilities stay on and your taxes get paid. Attempting to take care of any of these things without the proper document can be almost impossible.  In the absence of proper incapacity legal planning, your loved ones will need to initiate a court procedure known as a guardianship or conservatorship. However, these hearings can be expensive, time-consuming and contested by family members who don’t agree with moving forward.

Don’t wait to do this. Every person who’s at least age 18 should have a power of attorney in place. If you do have a power of attorney be sure that it’s up to date. Ask an experienced elder law or estate planning attorney to help you create these documents.

Reference: AARP (October 31, 2019) “Powers of Attorney: Crucial Documents for Caregiving”

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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.

Contact an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney to discuss guardianship rules.

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

 

Top 6 Questions (and Answers) about Conservatorships and Guardianships

What is a Guardian?

When someone becomes incapacitated due to illness, injury or disability, the court appoints a guardian to handle healthcare and certain non-financial decisions for that person. A guardian can be anyone over the age of 18, but must also be able to show that they are qualified to make these decisions for their loved one.  A guardian is not necessarily the person who is the caregiver over the incapacitated individual. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney who can discuss this with you.

What is a Conservator?

A Conservator is appointed by the court to make financial decisions for an incapacitated person. In some states, those who are appointed “conservator of the estate” are those who make financial decisions. Those who are appointed “Conservator of the person” handle the same issues as a “guardian.” Conservators can be expensive, as is the process to obtain one. There is also the potential that the incapacitated individual may be taken advantage of. To avoid a Conservatorship, designate a power of attorney for your financial and medical care. You should always speak with an experienced estate planning attorney who can explain this process to you should you think you need one.

Does my elderly loved one need a guardian

If your family member is unable to make healthcare decisions on her own, due to an injury following an accident, an illness, or disability, and she has not designated a healthcare power of attorney, she will need a guardian.

When is a Conservator more appropriate than a Guardian?

In some cases, someone may be perfectly capable of making her own healthcare decisions, but are unable to manage her finances. In this case, a Conservator would be more appropriate. If an individual cannot make financial or healthcare decisions, both may be appropriate.

Who does the court appoint as Guardian or Conservator?

A court will appoint the person it deems most competent to fill the role of conservator or guardian. In general, the person must be over the age of 18. The court’s first choice is a spouse, or other close family member. If none of those is available or is unwilling to serve, then they may consider extended family or friends. If those are unwilling or unavailable, then the court will appoint a neutral third party, such as an attorney, to act as Conservator or Guardian.

How do I relinquish Guardianship over my wife?

To relinquish Guardianship over any loved one, you must go to court and petition to do so. It is best if you have someone else in mind to take over when you submit your petition to ensure your loved one’s needs are met.

Whether you are considering a Guardianship or Conservatorship for a loved one, it is important to speak with an experienced estate planning attorney who can discuss these important concepts and filings with you.

Resources:

ElderLawAnswers. (Accessed November 29, 2019) https://www.elderlawanswers.com/questions-and-answers/Guardianship/Conservatorship

LawHelp.org. (Accessed November 29, 2019) https://www.lawhelp.org/dc/resource/guardianship-and-conservatorship-frequently-a