Frequently Asked Questions About Guardianship
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When should I consider getting guardianship over my elderly parent?
Most people who come to us to establish guardianship have already taken on the duties of caring for an ailing loved one. You may be cooking their meals, running them to hospital visits, or picking up their mail and paying bills on their behalf. However, there is a limit to how much you can legally do for your parent without the proper authority—and it is generally best to get this authority sooner rather than later.
Warning Signs That You May Need Guardianship Over an Elderly Relative
The choice to get legal control of a parent’s affairs can be unsettling, and can lead to family disagreements that push the decision, and the elder's safety, down the road. Unfortunately, putting off guardianship proceedings may force emergency action when your parent hits a crisis point, adding to your stress and discomfort in an already difficult time.
There are a few ways to tell if it’s time to start the guardianship process. For example, you may need legal help if there is a threat to your parent’s:
- Safety. Guardianship can help if a parent is suffering from a medical condition that often results in long-term decline (such as dementia, cancer, or organ failure) and he or she does not realize that they are unable to make the correct health care decisions.
- Life savings. The elderly are often targeted by scammers, caretakers, and even relatives looking to profit from their vulnerability. If you have seen strange transactions in your parent’s accounts or fear that someone is trying to gain access to their money, you should speak to us about guardianship.
- Health and well-being. If your parent has not appointed someone to act as the health care surrogate and the family does not get along, you will need guardianship to make decisions about their healthcare, housing, and long-term care. Under Florida law, if the elder has not created a health care surrogate, then the family would generally make decisions as the elder's health care proxy. But if the family does not get along and they do not agree on the health care decisions to be made, it is likely that a guardianship attorney would be necessary.
- Lack of Pre-Planning. Guardianships can often, but not always, be avoided through the proper estate planning. If your loved one has not created a durable power of attorney, for instance, and then loses capacity, then a guardianship will be needed to handle his or her affairs.
Lack of Capacity Standards for Guardianships
When a guardianship is sought, the court generally needs to find that the alleged incapacitated person lacks capacity. Here, an “incapacitated person” means a person who has been judicially determined to lack the capacity to manage at least some of the property or to meet at least some of the essential health and safety requirements of the person. Further,
- To “manage property” means to take those actions necessary to obtain, administer, and dispose of real and personal property, intangible property, business property, benefits, and income.
- To “meet essential requirements for health or safety” means to take those actions necessary to provide the health care, food, shelter, clothing, personal hygiene, or other care without which serious and imminent physical injury or illness is more likely than not to occur.
We understand that seeking a guardianship is a hard decision—and while we cannot change the past, the attorneys at DeLoach, Hofstra & Cavonis can take it from here. Simply fill out the quick contact form on this page to set up a consultation and get answers to your questions.
What is voluntary guardianship in Florida?
Most people who come to us to establish guardianship are relatives of a loved one who is incapacitated. However, some family members realize that they're incapable of handling certain financial matters on their own, and wish to surrender control of their affairs willingly. If you're unable to manage your finances, Florida law allows you to seek voluntary guardianship over property and assets.
Benefits of Voluntary Guardianship in Florida
The greatest benefit of guardianship is that it helps to protect your assets from those who would take advantage of you if you suffer an illness, are diagnosed with dementia, or have a progressive health condition that prevents you from making your own financial decisions.
There are other advantages to voluntary guardianship of property, including:
- Choosing your guardian. People suffering from illness may not recognize their inability to handle their affairs until it’s too late, forcing their families to step in and begin guardianship proceedings. A voluntary guardianship gives you the ability to choose who will serve as your guardian now, instead of taking a chance that a relative you might not trust will seek guardianship later.
- Setting your own limits. Taking action now allows you to control how much of your property is handled by your guardian. You may give your guardian authority to manage specific assets, such as stocks, or the entirety of an estate, and can choose how long the voluntary guardianship remains in effect.
- Protection of the courts. If you simply hand over control of your finances to a family member, there are no restrictions in place to prevent them from using your assets for their own gain. Voluntary guardianship is supervised by the courts, so your chosen guardian will be legally required to manage your affairs in a way that benefits you and your estate.
You should know that the state of Florida only recognizes voluntary guardianship over property. A voluntary guardian won't be able to make medical decisions on your behalf nor choose where you'll live. If you wish to give your guardian medical authority, you should consider including a durable power of attorney as part of your estate plan.
When would you want a Voluntary Guardianship?
Most estate planning is done to avoid any type of guardianships, but there are times when estate planning alone cannot stop people from hurting themselves. Here is an example of when we would think a voluntary guardianship would be helpful:
Mom, age 84, is getting forgetful but is still legally competent. She has a trustworthy daughter who lives locally but she also has a difficult son with "spending problems" who shows up to beg his mother for money. Mom is just not able to say "no" to lending (or giving!) her son money. The son has even taken mom to see an attorney to try and become her power of attorney. While mom is competent, placing her assets under a voluntary guardianship may be the best way to make sure mom cannot take her own money and just give it to her son.
Alternatives to a Voluntary Guardianship
While every situation is different, it is possible that a good estate plan can prevent a guardianship, such as through creating a revocable living trust and naming a trusted person as the trustee. But this has limitations if, for instance, the elder is subject to bad influences from close family members, as an example.
We Can Help
The attorneys at DeLoach, Hofstra & Cavonis can meet with you, listen to your concerns and help discuss options to make sure you or your loved one is protected. We can help establish voluntary guardianship if necessary, and ensure that your wishes will be followed. Simply fill out the quick contact form on this page to set up a consultation and get answers to your questions.
How Can I Stop My Loved One From Writing Checks?
We frequently receive questions regarding children trying to help when their parents going starting with dementia or Alzheimer's. The question is frequently something like:
I have durable power of attorney for my mother, but she keeps writing checks and making poor financial decisions when I’m not around. What do I do?
We have seen situations like this many times - Mom or Dad is getting forgetful, some type of dementia, and is not spending her money well. He or she may be writing checks to charities, scammers, needy family members, etc.
So, while durable powers of attorney are an important part of a well-rounded estate planning, they do have one major shortcoming: A durable power of attorney appoints an agent to act on behalf of the Principal (e.g., Mom or Dad), but it does NOT stop the Principal from still conducting business on his or her own. We frequently say that a durable power of attorney is a delegation of your rights, but it does not actually take away your rights.
The big picture is that a durable power of attorney is not really enough to stop someone with dementia from being taken advantage of. The power of attorney cannot stop mom/dad from writing checks/paying bills. There are some things that can help in these difficult situations:
Set Up a Revocable Living Trust
If Mom or Dad does not already have a revocable living trust, then the durable power of attorney may allow the child to set up and fund a revocable living trust in order to help Mom or Dad. Florida law says that a durable power of attorney executed after October 1, 2011, must specifically be initialled to allow the power of attorney to execute a living trust on mom/dad's behalf. Assuming this power is available, as power of attorney, the child may be able to transfer the parent’s assets into the trust and then manage the trust as trustee. Only a trustee can conduct business on behalf of a trust, therefore, the parent would not be able to write checks or conduct financial transactions for any assets that are in the trust.
Of course, we strongly recommend that you consult with an attorney regarding this option and whether the child is legally authorized to establish a trust on your parent’s behalf.
The next step may be to consider an adult guardianship proceeding. A guardianship proceeding will include an incompetency hearing. If the court finds your parent to be incompetent, the clerk of court will issue an order of such finding and will appoint a guardian to manage your parent’s affairs. You can then give copies of the court order to all banks and financial institutions where your parent holds accounts to notify the bank or financial institution that your parent has been declared incompetent by the court and no longer has legal authority to conduct transactions on his or her own behalf.
We typically recommend guardianships as a last resort only - if Mom/Dad is highly functioning (i.e., can go to the bank themselves and refuse to give up the car keys/check book), is not recognizing their own dementia, for instance, or if they are subject to elder exploitation. Florida also has an elder exploitation injunction that can help people when they are being exploited.
We Can Help!
You may be struggling to help your loved one make the right decisions, hitting roadblocks, looking for Medicaid, waitlists in trying to get your loved one placed in an appropriate facility, or constantly fighting with doctors, hospitals (or even other family members) because you don’t have the necessary legal or financial authority to oversee your loved one’s affairs and/or care.
Solid legal and financial planning is your answer and can help you put an end to all of the confusion and overwhelm that you currently face.
If you read this, you may want to read:
- How Your Estate Plan can help prevent elder exploitation
- When Durable Powers of Attorney Cannot Prevent a Guardianship in Florida
- Emergency Temporary Guardianships in Florida
If I have a good estate plan, can I avoid a guardianship proceeding altogether?
For the most part, yes. But as is always the case, the answer is “it depends.” As in cases where an estate plan is not updated to adjust to changing life circumstances. An estate plan is never a “set it and forget it” type of thing. Here is one example:
A married couple in their sixties, nearing retirement, with one adult daughter makes an estate plan. As part of the estate plan, the couple appoint each other the agent on their respective Powers of Attorney, and their adult daughter as the only successor agent.
In the ensuing years, their daughter predeceases each of them. Many years later, now in their 80s, the husband becomes incapacitated, and while serving as the husband’s agent under the Power of Attorney, the wife (the “caretaker spouse”) dies. In this tragic, but not uncommon example, the last to survive is incapacitated, with nobody authorized to manage his affairs through the Power of Attorney. A guardianship will need to be created to manage the health and finances of the surviving husband.
Importantly, it should be noted that even this example could have been avoided if the couple simply updated their Power of Attorney at the death of their daughter by adding one (or two) successors (i.e. grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc.). The takeaway being that an estate plan needs to be revisited by everyone in order to account for the various changes in circumstances life brings.
Further, one of the key ways to avoid a guardianship is by creating a durable power of attorney. This document allows the person of your choice the ability to make your legal and financial decisisons. Here, you can read about how a good durable power of attorney has its own limitations in preventing a guardianship.
Another key aspect of estate planning involves elder exploitation. Here, you can learn about how a good estate plan can help prevent elder exploitation.
If you need help updating your estate plan, elder exploitation or have questions about guardianship for your loved one, please do not hesitate to contact us.