How Does Guardianship Work?

How does guardianship work? For the most part, we are free to make our own decisions regarding how we live, where we live, how we spend our money and even with whom we socialize. However, when we are no longer capable of caring for ourselves, most commonly due to advancing age or dementia, or if an accident or illness occurs and we can’t manage our affairs, it may be necessary to seek a guardianship, as explained in the recent article “Legal Corner: A guardian can be a helpful tool in cases of incapacity” from The Westerly Sun. A guardianship is also necessary for the care of a child or adult with special needs.

If no proper estate planning has been done and no one has been given power of attorney or health care power of attorney, a guardianship may be necessary. This is a legal relationship where one person, ideally a responsible, capable and caring person known as a guardian, is given the legal power to manage the needs of a ward, the person who cannot manage their own affairs. This is usually supported through a court process, requires a medical assessment and comes before the probate court for a hearing.

Once the guardian is qualified and appointed by the court, they have the authority to oversee everything about the ward’s life. They have power over the ward’s money and how it is spent, health care decisions, residential issues and even with whom the ward spends time. At its essence, a guardianship is akin to a parent-child relationship.

Guardianships can be tailored by the court to meet the specific needs of the ward in each case, with the guardian’s powers either limited or expanded, as needed and as appropriate.

The guardian must report to the court on a yearly basis about the ward’s health and health care and file an annual accounting of what has been done with the ward’s money and how much money remains. The court supervision is intended to protect the ward from mismanagement of their finances and ensure that the guardianship is still needed and maintained on an annual basis.

The relationship between the ward and the guardian is often a close one and can continue for many years. The guardianship ends upon the death of the ward, the resignation or removal of the guardian, or in cases of temporary illness or incapacity, when the ward recovers and is once again able to handle their own affairs and make health care decisions on their own.

If and when an elderly family member can no longer manage their own lives, guardianship is a way to step in and care for them, if no prior estate planning has been done. It is preferable for an estate plan to be created and for powers of attorney be created, but in its absence, this is an option.

Reference: The Westerly Sun (Sep. 19, 2020) “Legal Corner: A guardian can be a helpful tool in cases of incapacity”

Key Parts of Estate Plan

The importance of having key estate planning documents cannot be overstated. That includes a will, an advance directive, powers of attorney for health care and financial matters and guardianships for minor children. Trusts may also be part of an estate plan, and they need to be created and funded in a timely manner. However,, according to the article “7 Things Your Client’s Estate Plan Might Be Missing: Morningstar” from Think Advisor, there are a number of frequently overlooked estate planning documents that make a difference.

Financial Overview. This gives a broad outline of your assets and can be a useful discussion starting point, when one spouse manages the money and the other needs to be brought up to speed. It includes information about larger assets, including the home, investments, cars and other valuables.

A Directory. Creating a complete master list of all accounts, including the account number, website addresses and the names of any individuals that you deal with on a regular basis, avoids sending loved ones on a scavenger hunt. Keep this document safe—either encrypt it or keep it in a locked, fireproof safe in your home.

Personal Property. Wills contain directions about property, but not everything gets included. Make a list of any tangible personal property that you want to go to specific people, like jewelry or artwork, and create a detailed memo. It won’t be part of the will, but most states consider such memos legally binding, as long as they are mentioned in the will. Your estate planning attorney will know what is best for your situation and in your state.

Plan for Pets. The best way to do this is with a pet trust, which is enforceable. You name a person to take care of your pets, and how much money they should use to care for the pet. The will can be used to specify who should be your pet’s caretaker. You can leave assets for the pet, but the designated person is not legally bound to use the money for the pet’s well-being.

Digital Estate Plan. Make a plan for your digital property, including tangible digital devices, like computers and phones and the data stored on devices in the cloud and online accounts, including social media, websites, emails, photos, videos, etc. Start by making an inventory of all digital accounts, which needs to be stored in the same way your directory is: under lock and key.

End of Life Plan. Advance directives are estate planning documents that are used to direct your wishes towards life-extending care, but they don’t always go into detail. Providing additional information to loved ones who might need to make health care decisions could alleviate a lifetime of guilt. Having conversations is a starting point but putting your wishes into a document is better.

Ethical Will. An ethical will in which the person hands down their belief system to loved ones is a gift and part of your legacy. What would you want the next generation to know about your beliefs? What life lessons do you want to share?

Reference: Think Advisor (July 22, 2020) “7 Things Your Client’s Estate Plan Might Be Missing: Morningstar”

Should I Write My Will During the Pandemic?

Writing a will allows you to instruct your executor how you want your assets to be distributed when you die. If you have minor children, your will ought to include instruction on who will raise them if you die and their other parent is deceased.

The Oakland Press’s article entitled Writing a will today is more important than ever” says that if you pass away before writing a will, the state will make these critical decisions for you. What the state decides may not reflect your wishes. This may create conflict and stress within your family and cause financial troubles for those you leave behind. It may be important to note that, in this scenario, none of your assets will go to your favorite charities.

Writing a will, as with other estate planning documents, is critical because this gives you control over how your affairs are handled when you die. This includes the way in which your assets are distributed and who will take care of your children, if they’re minors.

When you are writing your will, it’s important that it’s legally valid. There’s no guarantee that a will prepared without an estate planning lawyer will meet the criteria. If the probate judge doesn’t accept your will, it’s as if you died without one.

As a result, it’s very important that you work with a qualified estate planning attorney writing a will. If you don’t, it is possible that your will or other estate documents you purchased online might not meet the state requirements.

Therefore, you’ve wasted money, and your instructions may not be followed. This can mean uncertainty in how your estate is eventually administered, and it can make an already stressful situation even worse for your family.

An experienced estate planning attorney can make sure your will meets the state’s requirements, decreases hard feelings within your family and keeps your family from challenging its validity in court.

If you have written a will already, consider updating it, especially if a beneficiary listed on the document has died, if you’ve sold your home and bought another, given away some of your possessions, your financial circumstances or the value of your property has changed, or your charity relationships have changed.

You may want to change your estate plan when your children become adults or if others that were provided for in the estate plan are no longer living.

Writing a will is a delicate process that requires the expertise of a professional estate planning attorney.

Reference: Oakland Press (May 16, 2020) Writing a will today is more important than ever”