Guardianships and Powers of Attorney: What’s the Difference?

The terms “guardianship” and “power of attorney” are mostly heard when dealing with a family member or loved one who’s incapacitated. But what’s the difference between the two? Are they the same thing? Who needs a guardianship and who needs a power of attorney? When should I get a power of attorney vs a guardianship?

A guardianship is a legal process that gives one person the ability to make decisions for another person. These can be obtained for either an incapacitated adult or a minor child. A Power of Attorney is also a legal tool that gives one person (the agent) the ability to make decisions for another person (the principal). It is a legal document that is usually drafted by an attorney. Historically, a power of attorney became ineffective when the principal became incapacitated. However, most individuals who use powers of attorney for estate planning purposes opt for a “durable” power of attorney. A durable power of attorney remains effective even after the principal has become incapacitated. A person becomes incapacitated when they are unable to make their own financial and healthcare decisions.

So what’s the difference?

A Guardianship can be established when an individual is no longer able to make their own business and financial decisions. Guardianships in Alabama can only be obtained through the court system, and a judge decides who the guardian will be. Generally, a guardianship is used when there are no less restrictive means to make decisions on behalf of an individual.

A Power of Attorney, on the other hand, is created while an individual still has the ability to make his or her own business and financial decisions. The principal can decide who will be his or her agent, when the power of attorney will become effective, and what matters his or her agent can address on their behalf. The principal must, however, have a sound mind when executing this document. If you become incapacitated before you’ve had a chance to have a power of attorney drafted and you happen to need certain business and/or financial decisions made on your behalf, then someone will have to be appointed as a guardian by a court.

The main difference between the guardianship and a power of attorney is that a guardianship takes away the right of the individual to make decisions, while a power of attorney permits another to make decisions in conjunction with the individuals’ choices. There are times when it is necessary to remove the right to make poor decisions.

If I have a power of attorney will I still have to have a guardian appointed for me?

The answer depends on whether the Power of Attorney document is sufficient to meet all the needs of the incapacitated person. You might need a guardianship when a Power of Attorney is limited or not sufficient and doesn’t address certain matters that can be handled on behalf of a principal. In this case, you would need a Guardianship over the person in order to make decisions for them.

Another reason you might need a guardianship is when you have a Power of Attorney, and you need to protect an incapacitated person from being taken advantage of. A Power of Attorney allows another individual to make decisions on behalf of another person jointly. A guardianship goes one step further and takes away an incapacitated person’s rights to make individual decisions on their own.

Contact the Law Office of Rodney Davis, PLLC at (205) 578-1597 to speak with a lawyer who handles guardianships and powers of attorney. Our office can help you determine whether your Power of Attorney document is sufficient and whether you might also need a Guardianship.

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Four Steps to Take Right After an Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, it is important to start planning immediately. There are several essential documents to help you once you become incapacitated, but if you don’t already have them in place, you need to act quickly after a diagnosis.

Having dementia does not mean an individual is not mentally competent to make planning decisions. The person signing documents must have “testamentary capacity,” which means he or she must understand the implications of what is being signed. Simply having a form of mental illness or disease does not mean that you automatically lack the required mental capacity. As long as you have periods of lucidity, you may still be competent to sign planning documents.

The following are some essential documents for someone diagnosed with dementia:

  • Power of Attorney. A power of attorney is the most important estate planning document for someone who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or some other form of dementia. A power of attorney allows you to appoint someone to make decisions on your behalf once you become incapacitated. Without a power of attorney, your family would be unable to pay your bills or manage your household without going to court and getting a guardianship, which can be a time-consuming and expensive process.
  • Health Care Proxy. A health care proxy, like a power of attorney, allows you to appoint someone else to act as your agent for medical decisions. It will ensure that your medical treatment instructions are carried out. In general, a health care proxy takes effect only when you require medical treatment and a physician determines that you are unable to communicate your wishes concerning treatment.
  • Advanced Directive for Health Care or Living Will. Advanced directives and living wills explain what type of care you would like if you are unable to direct your own care. An advance directive can include a health care proxy or it can be a separate document. It may contain directions to refuse or remove life support in the event you are in a coma or a vegetative state or it may provide instructions to use all efforts to keep you alive, no matter what the circumstances.
  • Will and Other Estate Planning Documents. In addition to making sure you have people to act for you and your wishes are clear, you should make sure your estate plan is up to date, or if you don’t have an estate plan, you should draw one up.  Your estate plan directs who will receive your property when you die. Once you are deemed incapacitated, you will no longer be able to create an estate plan. An estate plan usually consists of a will, and often a trust as well. Your will is your legally binding statement on who will receive your property when you die, while a trust is a mechanism for passing on your property outside of probate.

In addition to executing these documents, it is also important to create a plan for long-term care. Long-term care is expensive and draining for family members. Developing a plan now for what type of care you would like and how to pay for it will help your family later on. Your attorney can assist you in developing that plan and drafting any necessary documents.

If you would like more information feel free to contact our office today.

How to Handle Sibling Disputes Over a Power of Attorney

A power of attorney is one of the most important estate planning documents, but when one sibling is named in a power of attorney, there is the potential for disputes with other siblings. No matter which side you are on, it is important to know your rights and limitations.

A power of attorney allows someone to appoint another person — an “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” — to act in place of him or her – the “principal” — if the principal ever becomes incapacitated. There are two types of powers of attorney: financial and medical. Financial powers of attorney usually include the right to open bank accounts, withdraw funds from bank accounts, trade stock, pay bills, and cash checks. They could also include the right to give gifts. Medical powers of attorney allow the agent to make health care decisions. In all of these tasks, the agent is required to act in the best interests of the principal. The power of attorney document explains the specific duties of the agent.

When a parent names only one child to be the agent under a power of attorney, it can cause bad feelings and distrust. If you are dealing with a sibling who has been named agent under a power of attorney or if you have been named agent under a power of attorney over your siblings, the following are some things to keep in mind:

  • Right to information. Your parent doesn’t have to tell you whom he or she chose as the agent. In addition, the agent under the power of attorney isn’t required to provide information about the parent to other family members.
  • Access to the parent. An agent under a financial power of attorney should not have the right to bar a sibling from seeing their parent. A medical power of attorney may give the agent the right to prevent access to a parent if the agent believes the visit would be detrimental to the parent’s health.
  • Revoking a power of attorney. As long as the parent is competent, he or she can revoke a power of attorney at any time for any reason. The parent should put the revocation in writing and inform the old agent.
  • Removing an agent under power of attorney. Once a parent is no longer competent, he or she cannot revoke the power of attorney. If the agent is acting improperly, family members can file a petition in court challenging the agent. If the court finds the agent is not acting in the principal’s best interest, the court can revoke the power of attorney and appoint a guardian.
  • The power of attorney ends at death.If the principal under the power of attorney dies, the agent no longer has any power over the principal’s estate. The court will need to appoint an executor or personal representative to manage the decedent’s property.

If you are drafting a power of attorney document and want to avoid the potential for conflicts, there are some options. You can name co-agents in the document. You need to be careful how this is worded or it could cause more problems. The best way to name two co-agents is to let the agents act separately. Another option is to steer clear of family members and name a professional fiduciary.

Sibling disputes over how to provide care or where a parent will live can escalate into a guardianship battle that can cost the family thousands of dollars. Drafting a formal sibling agreement (also called a family care agreement) is a way to give guidance to the agent under the power of attorney and provide for consequences if the agreement isn’t followed. Even if you don’t draft a formal agreement, openly talking about the areas of potential disagreement can help. If necessary, a mediator can help families come to an agreement on care.

If you would like to learn more about powers of attorney and how you can benefit from having one, please give us a call today!

Standalone Retirement Trusts

Nowadays, most Americans hold their wealth in retirement accounts. When it comes to
inheritance and estate planning, special considerations are necessary to ensure that these assets are protected and distributed according to the account holder’s wishes. 

Retirement assets, such as IRAs, are typically passed via beneficiary designation. For example, for a married couple with children, it would be common to designate the spouse as primary beneficiary and children as secondary. However, in almost all occasions it is advantageous to name a trust—rather than a particular individual—as the designated beneficiary. Once the retirement account becomes inherited by a non-spouse beneficiary (i.e. children), it is important to understand that IRS regulations
treat this inherited retirement account differently. Specifically, once inherited, the beneficiary is obligated to begin taking required minimum distributions from such funds within a more immediate time horizon of either five years or over the beneficiary’s life expectancy.  An IRA administrator will also offer the option of receiving the proceeds as a lump sum payment, which is very often discouraged, especially in the case of minor or financially irresponsible children. The preferred goal in planning for inheriting retirement assets is to maximize this window of time so that the tax-sheltered, long-term growth benefits of retirement accounts are maximized.

IRAs and other retirement instruments were designed precisely for a specific purpose: retirement. They were not intended as a savings mechanism for future generations. Tax laws work according to this assumption, and so foresight and planning are necessary when including such holdings in an estate to be passed on to beneficiaries. Trusts can serve as an appropriate conduit to protect and preserve these assets.

Some will consider a standard revocable living trust by default when structuring a retirement trust.  This could cause unfavorable consequences, however, including a more fixed distribution schedule and the lack of creditor protection. Further, the IRS may a not consider the revocable living trust as a designated third party beneficiary, resulting in the assets becoming immediately, taxable income.

A Standalone Retirement Trust is a trust that is created for the sole purpose of serving as the beneficiary of the remainder of your IRA funds (and other qualified funds, e.g. 401(k)). Thus, the trust will be funded after you pass with whatever is left of your retirement assets. Then, the trustee of the Standalone Retirement Trust will oversee the distribution of the funds to your heir(s) in a manner you see fit.

A Standalone Retirement Trust will provide you with significantly greater control over the manner in which your remaining retirement funds are distributed to your loved ones, rather than just control who will receive the funds after you die—as is the case with leaving your IRA through a simple beneficiary designation.

Other potential benefits of Standalone Retirement Trusts include 

  • Asset protection in the event of a divorce;
  • Creditor protection;
  • Generation-skipping tax benefits;
  • Special Needs/Supplemental Trust benefits;
  • Alerts the beneficiary of any tax consequences of an immediate payout;
  • Allows beneficiary’s to thinly stretch tax obligations over time;
  • Alleviates the need for a court appointed guardian for minor beneficiaries
  • Provides a beneficiary with asset protection in the event the beneficiary becomes disabled; and 
  • Allows for successor beneficiaries. 

For more information on Standalone Retirement Trusts contact our office today. 

Are You Guilty of Micromanaging Your Aging Parent?

Elizabeth O’Brien, Retirement Reporter for Marketwatch.com, calls them “Tiger Children.” They are individuals with aging parents who try to micromanage their aging parents in making important decisions such as elder care and estate planning. As a lawyer with a practice focused on estate planning, “Tiger Children” remind me of an all too common estate planning issue: undue influence. Undue influence is defined as influence by which a person is induced to act otherwise than by their own free will or without adequate attention to the consequences.

According to Cornell University Law School, in order prove undue influence, a party must show that one party to a transaction or contract is a person with weaknesses which make him likely to be affected by such persuasion, and that the party exercising the persuasion is someone in a special relationship with the victim that makes the victim especially susceptible to such persuasion. For example, Albert is a 95 year old widower with dementia. His primary caretaker is his much younger girlfriend, Barbara. Everyday Barbara presses her aging boyfriend to write a will leaving his entire estate to her and to disinherit his children, Charles and Danielle. When Albert shows resistance, Barbara threatens to cease taking care of Albert. Feeling vulnerable and pressured by Barbara’s demands, Albert gives in to Barbara’s wishes and decides to write a will leaving his entire estate to Barbara and disinherits Charles and Danielle. At Albert’s death, Barbara tries to have Albert’s will probated. Charles and Danielle, however, may be able to challenge the will as invalid due to undue influence on Albert by Barbara.

Click here to check out Elizabeth O’Brien’s article, “Don’t be the ‘Tiger Child’ at your family gathering,” to learn how you can avoid the mistake of micromanaging and pressuring your aging parents.