Elder abuse can take a wide variety of forms, but I think the worst of the worst is caused by unscrupulous adult guardians appointed by a court to care for seniors who are no longer able to care for themselves. And though you may not want to believe such a thing could happen, you need to know that without the right planning in place, even the seniors in your own family could be at risk.

In fact, there are currently 1.5 million American adults under guardianship, with an estimated 85% of them over age 65. All told, these guardians control nearly $273 billion in assets. And a 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found hundreds of cases where guardians were involved in the abuse, exploitation, and neglect of seniors placed under their supervision.

Exploitation disguised as protection
Although most of the reported abuse was committed by family members, an increasing number of elder abuse cases involve professional guardians.

These predatory guardians search for seniors with a history of health issues, and they’re often able to obtain court-sanctioned guardianship with alarming ease. From there, they can force the elderly out of their homes and into assisted-living facilities and nursing homes. They can sell off their homes and other assets, keeping the proceeds for themselves. They can prevent them from seeing or speaking with their family members, leaving them isolated and even more vulnerable to exploitation.

What’s more, though it’s possible for a guardianship to be terminated by the court if it can be proven that the need for guardianship no longer exists, a study by the American Bar Association (ABA) found that such attempts typically fail. And those family members who do try to fight against court-appointed guardians frequently end up paying hefty sums of money in attorney’s fees and court costs, with some even going bankrupt in the process.

An open door for potential abuse
Obviously, not all professional guardians exploit the seniors (known as wards) placed under their care. But with the combination of the exploding elderly population—many of whom will require guardians—and our overloaded court system, such abuse will almost certainly become more common. Indeed, as the swelling aging population strains court resources, strict oversight of professional guardians is likely to become increasingly more difficult, enabling shady guardians to more easily slip through the cracks.

Facing these facts, it’s critical for both seniors and their adult children to take proactive measures to prevent the possibility of such abuse. Fortunately, there are multiple estate planning tools that can dramatically reduce the chances of you, or your elderly loved ones, being placed under the care of a professional guardian against your/their wishes.

What’s more, because any adult could face court-ordered guardianship if they become incapacitated by illness or injury, it’s crucial that every person over age 18—not just seniors—have planning vehicles in place to prepare for their potential incapacity.

Should you become incapacitated and not have the proper planning vehicles in place, your family would have to petition the court in order to be granted guardianship. And it’s this lack of planning that leaves you vulnerable. In most cases, the court would appoint a family member as guardian, but this isn’t always the case.

If you have no living family members, or those you do have are unwilling or unable to serve or deemed unsuitable by the court, a professional guardian would be appointed. And in certain cases, particularly when your family doesn’t live close by, guardianship can be granted without your loved ones—or even you—being aware of it. 

A total loss of autonomy
Once you’ve been placed under court-ordered guardianship, you essentially lose all your civil rights. Indeed, whether it’s a family member or a professional, guardians have complete legal authority to control every facet of your life.

Given the extreme power guardianship affords, courts are supposed to exercise tight oversight over adult guardians, yet the reality is that only cursory supervision is provided. What’s more, courts often don’t even keep complete records of guardianship cases, and those that do typically keep those records sealed from public view.

With no real system in place to prevent abuse by professional guardians, it’s up to you to protect yourself and your elderly parents through proactive estate planning.

Dedicated to empowering your family, building your wealth and defining your legacy,

When it comes to estate planning, most people automatically think about taking legal steps to ensure the right people inherit their stuff when they die. And these people aren’t wrong.

Indeed, putting strategies in place to protect and pass on our wealth and other assets is a fundamental part of the planning equation. However, providing for the proper distribution of our assets upon death is just one part of the process.

And it’s not even the most critical part.

Planning that’s focused solely on who gets what when you die is ignoring the fact that death isn’t the only thing to be prepared for. You must also consider that at some point before your eventual death, you could be incapcitated by accident or illness.

Incapacity can be a temporary event from which you eventually recover, or it can be the start of a long and costly event that ultimately ends in your death. Indeed, incapacity can drag out over many years, leaving you and your family in agonizing limbo. This uncertainty is what makes incapacity planning so incredibly important.

In fact, incapacity can be a far greater burden for your loved ones than your death. This is true not only in terms of its potentially ruinous financial costs, but also for the emotional trauma, contentious court battles, and internal conflict your family may endure if you fail to address it in your plan. 

The goal of effective estate planning is to keep your family out of court and out of conflict no matter what happens. So if you only plan for your death, you’re leaving your family—and yourself—extremely vulnerable to potentially tragic consequences.

Where to start
Planning for incapacity requires a different mindset and different tools than planning for death. If you’re incapacitated by illness or injury, you’ll still be alive when these planning strategies take effect. What’s more, the legal authority you grant others to manage your incapacity is only viable while you remain alive and unable to make decisions about your own welfare.

If you regain the cognitive ability to make your own decisions, for instance, the legal power you granted others is revoked. The same goes if you should eventually succumb to your condition—your death renders these powers null and void.

To this end, the first thing you should ask yourself is, “If I’m ever incapacitated and unable to care for myself, who would I want making decisions on my behalf?” Specifically, you’ll be selecting the person, or persons, you want making your healthcare, financial, and legal decisions for you until you either recover or pass away.

You must name someone
The most important thing to remember is that you must choose someone. If you don’t legally name someone to make these decisions during your incapacity, the court will choose someone for you. And this is where things can get extremely difficult – and costly – for your loved ones.

This potential turmoil and expense can be easily avoided through proper estate planning. An effective plan would give the individuals you’ve chosen 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 or conflict about how these vital decisions should be made.

What won’t work
Determining which planning tools you should use to grant and guide this decision-making authority depends entirely on your personal circumstances. There are several options available, but choosing what’s best is something you should ultimately decide after consulting with an experienced lawyer.

That said, we can tell you one planning tool that’s totally worthless when it comes to your incapacity: a will. A will only goes into effect upon your death, and then it merely governs how your assets should be divided, so having a will does nothing to keep your family out of court and out of conflict in the event of your incapacity.

Don’t let a bad situation become much worse
You may be powerless to prevent your potential incapacity, but proper estate planning can at least give you control over how your life and assets will be managed if it does occur. Moreover, such planning can prevent your family from enduring needless trauma, conflict, and expense during this already trying time.

If you’ve yet to plan for incapacity, we can counsel you on the proper planning vehicles to put in place, and help you select the individuals best suited to make such critical decisions on your behalf. If you already have planning strategies in place, we can review your plan to make sure it’s been properly set up, maintained, and updated. Contact us today to get started.

Dedicated to empowering your family, building your wealth and defining your legacy,

dementia 91024As senior citizens continue to age, the likelihood increases that they will become physically or mentally incapacitated. Hopefully, people in such a situation have family members who step in and help keep their affairs in order. That is not always the case, however. If no one steps in to help, courts may be petitioned to appoint someone-a guardian-to look after that person’s very existence. This often happens when a person becomes incapacitated by illness and cannot make decisions.

What Can I Do?

For medical situations, a medical power of attorney – a document that identifies a person of your choosing (your agent) to make decisions for you in the event of your incapacity – should be executed. Your agent can be family member or friend. The key is to make sure it is someone you trust.

A power of attorney can also be used to appoint someone to deal with non-medical issues. This document can be set up to either take effect immediately, or only at such time as you are unable to make your own decisions. The former is known as a “durable” power of attorney, while the latter is a “springing” power of attorney. The durable power of attorney is the more effective of the two in that it requires no consideration of whether a person lacks the capacity to make decisions.

Also, consider setting up a trust to administer your assets as you age. Unlike a power of attorney, with a trust, the trustee has sole control of your assets. And there are further legal steps you can take, such as establishing a limited liability corporation or a family limited partnership to manage your assets.

All of these processes will prevent the need for a court to appoint a guardian for you if you become incapable of managing your own affairs. Those of us who are in our senior years should

recognize the increasing chance of the need for someone else to make decisions. And those of us who have elderly parents or loved ones should help them think about these issues. The time to plan for potential incapacity is now. Once someone becomes incapacitated, it’s simply too late.

Dedicated to your family’s wealth, health, and happiness,
Marc Garlett 91024

Long-term care 91024Have you thought about the possibility that you or your spouse could become incapable of handling your own medical or financial affairs? Avoiding the need for a conservatorship – the process whereby someone is appointed by a court to assume responsibility for the property or the personal welfare of an incapacitated adult – is important.

A serious illness or accident can happen suddenly at any age. And, as Americans are living longer than ever, we have a greater likelihood of experiencing senility, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or a host of other ailments during our golden years, any of which will affect our ability to make sound decisions about healthcare, or to pay bills, write checks, make deposits, sell assets, or otherwise manage our affairs.

The best way to avoid the need for expensive and burdensome conservatorship proceedings is through estate planning tools like these:

Durable Financial Powers of Attorney — Executing a durable power of attorney enables you to name a conservator to act on your behalf if you become incapacitated. The conservator is empowered to handle all your financial and business affairs in case you cannot do so yourself. Although it can become effective immediately, it only becomes active if or when you become incapacitated. To be valid, it must be executed prior to any incapacitation.

Advance Health Care Directives — Executing an advance health care directive designates someone to serve as your agent for making health care decisions in the event of your incapacitation. This can include temporary hospitalizations or end-of-life care, and your choice should be someone you trust to honor your wishes when it comes to your medical care. This document must also be executed prior to any incapacitation to be valid.

Revocable Living Trusts — Executing a revocable living trust avoids the need for conservatorship proceedings by designating a successor trustee to serve during a period of incapacity. You can serve as co-trustee along with a trusted person or financial institution of your choice. If you become incapacitated, the co-trustee you have designated will take over the management of your assets held in the trust. Remember though, this is only valid if your property is properly titled in the name of your Living Trust before incapacity.

One of the main goals of my law practice is to help families like yours plan for the protection of yourself and your loved ones. If you’re ready to start thinking about your own estate planning, call my office today to schedule a time for us to sit down and talk.

To you family’s health, wealth, and happiness,
Marc Garlett 91024

Dementia 91024Maria Shriver knows the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease firsthand. Her beloved father Sargent Shriver, founder of the Peace Corps and one-time candidate for Vice President of the United States, died of the disease in 2011 after being diagnosed in 2003.

Often called “the long goodbye,” Alzheimer’s disease affects more than five million Americans and its prevalence will continue to grow as the population ages. Shriver recently reported for NBC.com on the five things Alzheimer’s or dementia victims should do once a diagnosis has been confirmed, and she is spot on:

1. Execute powers of attorney and advance medical directives. These allow for the designation of a trusted person or persons to make financial and medical decisions before cognitive impairments worsen.

2. Create an estate plan. If you do not have a written plan that designates how your assets will be distributed upon your death, you need to create one. If one exists, check it over for any necessary updates to beneficiaries or the addition of any assets acquired after the original plan was made.

3. Create an asset preservation plan. Asset preservation is usually critical for those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. An estate planning attorney and/or a financial planner can help preserve assets for future long-term care.

4. Communicate. Once diagnosed, you should have a conversation with your family about your decisions for your care. Let them know where important documents are stored. As part of your legacy planning, we can help you capture and pass on your own story and wishes for your loved ones through a special recording we provide for each of our clients.

5. Do it sooner rather than later. Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases are progressive illnesses, so prompt action is necessary to put these protections in place for you and your loved ones.

More information and inspiration on dealing with Alzheimer’s and other dementia diseases can be found at MariaShriver.com.

Call my office to schedule a time for us to sit down and have a Family Estate Planning Session, where we can identify the best ways for you to ensure your legacy of love and financial security for your family.
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