#TuesdayTips: My Role as Court Appointed Counsel

Guardianship is the court process whereby an individual (usually a family member) is appointed by the court to make health care and/or financial decisions form someone who the court has deemed incompetent and not able to make those decisions him or herself. Because this is such an important proceeding, the legislature has felt it necessary that when a guardianship petition is filed in the court, the court shall appoint a member of the bar (an attorney) to represent the alleged disabled person (ADP for short) during the process.  The Court Appointed Counsel is responsible for representing the ADP and asserting their wishes and instructions regardless of their physical or mental status. 

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What is guardianship and do I need it?  Guardianship is the court process whereby an individual (usually a family member) is appointed by the court to make health care and/or financial decisions form someone who the court has deemed incompetent and not able to make those decisions him or herself.  It is what the court calls, “the means of last resort” because the court prefers alternatives over guardianship because it is so restrictive.  Such alternatives are powers of attorney, joint account ownership, etc.

Guardianship is taken by the court very seriously.  Why? The answer is actually simple.  When a person is incarcerated in prison, he or she has lost their liberty, i.e., their ability to make their own decisions.  With guardianship, even though it is a civil matter and not criminal, the court is making a determination that a person is not competent based on medical evidence, and essentially taking that person’s rights away to make medical and financial decisions from that point forward.  The only way to get guardianship removed is to prove that the medical condition no longer exists or the person has regained the ability to make their own decisions.

Because this is such an important proceeding, the legislature has felt it necessary that when a guardianship petition is filed in the court, the court shall appoint a member of the bar (an attorney) to represent the alleged disabled person (ADP for short) during the process.   That attorney is referred to as the Court-Appointed Counsel or CAC.  The CAC is responsible for representing the ADP and asserting their wishes and instructions regardless of their physical or mental status.  That means that if a person with end-stage Alzheimer’s Disease does not believe anything is wrong and does not want a guardian, it is the CAC’s job to tell the court the ADP does not want a guardian.

Additionally, as part of the job of a CAC, he or she may also interview family members, review medical records, request depositions of medical professionals, and although very rare, conduct a jury trial on behalf of the ADP if competency is strongly contested.  Often times, the ADP is either unconscious or non-communicative due to a disease or physical trauma, like a head injury.  The court will regularly call on the CAC to opine as to the best-suited person to serve as guardian because the CAC is the court’s eyes and ears during the guardianship process.

Since the guardianship process can be very intense and contentious, it is best to be prepared and get your estate planning documents in order.  The best part about estate planning is YOU get to choose who makes those difficult medical and financial decisions.  If a guardianship is initiated, you may not get who you want.  For example, you might not get along with your child, and would prefer your sibling be your guardian; however, if a guardianship is initiated, your child stands in a higher priority of appointment than your sibling.  Therefore, if the matter is contested, your sibling would have to prove that he/she is better suited to be your guardian than your child.  So as parting words of wisdom…make sure you are prepared!  Get your estate planning documents together so you can avoid guardianship at all costs!  Call the attorneys at ERA Law Group, LLC today at (410) 919-1790.

#TuesdayTips: The “Simple” Will

All too often will-seeking clients call the firm asking if we do “simple” wills, say they need a will, but don’t want one of those “long wills”, or claim to not have anything, so they just need a “basic” will.  On this week’s #TuesdayTips article, ERA Law Group, LLC discusses how having a properly drafted will can mitigate many of these foreseen and unforeseen problems.

All too often will-seeking clients call the firm asking if we do “simple” wills, say they need a will, but don’t want one of those “long wills”, or claim to not have anything, so they just need a “basic” will.   Most law firms will respond to the client, “Yes! We can do that!”  But there are pitfalls that can arise, some foreseen and some unforeseen, when a person only has a “simple” will, and the client does not even know these potential pitfalls exist.  On this week’s #TuesdayTips article, ERA Law Group, LLC discusses how having a properly drafted will can mitigate many of these foreseen and unforeseen problems.

Two common scenarios arise when people have a “simple” will that case issues: (1) Age issues, and (2) Disability issues.  The first scenario, age, has two parts: (a) what happens if someone who is under eighteen (18) years old is set to inherit money or property from the decedent; and (2) what if someone who is over eighteen (18) years old is set to inherit money or property, but is irresponsible to handle a substantial inheritance?

In Maryland, a person under eighteen cannot inherit money or property and hold legal title to that property in their own name.  Someone else over eighteen must hold title to that property, for the minor’s benefit, until the minor attains eighteen years old.  Often times, though, the Testator or Testatrix (man/woman who creates the will) might not think that a person at eighteen is mature enough to handle inheriting money or property; therefore, in a properly drafted under-stated age trust (a.k.a. a minor’s trust) set up in a will, he/she can set the minimum age to inherit to an age he/she feels is more appropriate.  Often, a Testator or Testatrix will choose somewhere between age 23 and 25 because the person inheriting has completed college, grad school, a trade school and/or has been working for a reasonable amount of time and a can hopefully manage an inheritance of money, property or both.  Therefore, it is advantageous for your will to contain an under-stated age subtrust that directs how a minor’s or individual’s inheritance who is under a stated age will be held and managed.  Last, this subtrust can avoid the requirement of court intervention if a minor is set to receive an inheritance and no provisions are made outlining how to handle a minor receiving an inheritance.

The next scenario is: what happens if a person who is incompetent or disabled is set to receive an inheritance?  It is possible that when a person dies, he or she has designated an individual who is incompetent or disabled to receive all or a portion of their estate.  If that happens, it can have dire consequences for the beneficiary.  For example, what happens if the child of a decedent has a severe cognitive disability (i.e., severe autism or severe Downs Syndrome) and is receiving SSI and Medicaid because he is unable to work. If the parent does not do proper planning, that disabled child may inherit a substantial sum of money causing that child to lose his SSI and Medicaid benefits.

Or this other scenario: a husband is in a nursing home on Medicaid because of severe dementia, but the wife still living in the community suffers a massive heart attack and dies.  Now the husband in the nursing home may be designated in the wife’s will to receive all of her estate.  Now the husband in the nursing facility might lose his Medicaid benefits because he now inherited a house that needs to be sold.  Remember, the husband has severe dementia, cannot sell the house himself, and does not have a power of attorney.  Now a guardianship issue has presented itself in addition to him losing his Medicaid benefits because he now has excess assets.

All of the problems caused in scenario two can be avoided if the decedent’s will has a properly drafted Incompetent or Disabled Beneficiary Trust.

At ERA Law Group, LLC, we advise our clients of these potential pitfalls, even when the client wants to do “basic” planning.  Unfortunately, if not properly counseled, “basic” planning can cause very complex issues later after someone dies.  At that point, it may be too late to cure the issues.  That is why ERA’s “basic” or “simple” will includes both of these subtrusts…we don’t want our clients to be left stranded if these difficult and “unforeseen” scenarios come up later.  Call us today at (410) 919-1790!

#TuesdayTips: Effective Estate Planning

A proper estate plan should provide for the following: (1) the ability to control your property while you are alive and able, (2) planning for you and your loved ones should you become disabled, and (3) after you die, making sure your assets go to the people you love without unnecessary cost or delay. 

A proper estate plan should provide for the following: (1) the ability to control your property while you are alive and able, (2) planning for you and your loved ones should you become disabled, and (3) after you die, making sure your assets go to the people you love without unnecessary cost or delay.  Moreover, for an estate plan to be effective there needs to be proper asset ownership and control of the process.

Every person over the age of eighteen, at the very least, needs a financial power of attorney, a health care power of attorney, and a will.  The powers of attorney are for when you are alive but for whatever reason, are unable to manage your assets or make medical decisions for yourself.  Additionally, the health care power of attorney should include your wishes and instructions for life sustaining treatment should you be terminally ill, in a persistent vegetative state, or at the end-stage of a condition.  These powers of attorney terminate upon your death.  At that time, the will takes effect and your assets would be distributed in accordance with the terms of the will.

In addition to the powers of attorney and will, every estate plan should include long-term care planning.  With the advance of medicine, people are living longer; yet, most of us have not made ample provision for our future long-term care needs.  Creating an estate plan now ensures that you are in control of your future.

With that in mind, here are some questions you should consider:

  1. Do your current documents name individuals that you trust and who would be appropriate (e.g. a family member or other trustworthy person who lives nearby and who has the time and ability)? Have you named alternates?
  2. Does your financial power of attorney allow your agent to engage in asset preservation or long-term care planning?
  3. Who are the current beneficiaries under your will? Are they still alive?  Do you have alternates?
  4. Have you made provision for an underage beneficiary? Does your will provide for a disabled beneficiary?
  5. How are your assets titled and do they have beneficiary designations? If so, you need to review this information to make sure it coincides with your will.

The attorneys at ERA Law Group, LLC today are here to help.  Call today!