In the first part 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 most frightening 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 the first part of 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 incapcitated 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.
Finally, 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 a Personal Family Lawyer®. 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've yet to plan for incapacity, schedule a Family Wealth 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.
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