Avoid Living Probate: How to Keep Guardians and Conservators Out of Your Estate (UPDATED: May 2019)
While most proactive individuals know the importance of having a well-rounded estate plan, it is typically considered as something that will take effect after they have passed away. But there are in fact many ways in which comprehensive estate planning can have a positive impact on your life while you are still around to reap the benefits. One of those ways is to help you avoid living probate.
If you become incapacitated, who is going to take care of you? You will not be able to make medical decisions for yourself and you will not be able to manage your day-to-day affairs. If you do not have the appropriate estate plan in place, your family may be headed to the probate court long before you are deceased. So, when is living probate necessary?
Planning for Incapacity
Most people who reach old age come to a point at which they are no longer in a position to handle all of their affairs on their own. In many cases this incapacity is due to dementia or other cognitive impairments associated with the elderly. At that point, the decisions they’ve made with their estate planning attorney can have major repercussions on their lifestyle and the handling of their wealth.
Take Alex, for example. Long before Alex retired from his long and successful career as an IT manager at a large corporation, he put a cursory estate plan in place with a will detailing who would get which of his assets upon his death. But, Alex didn’t update his plan as he aged. In his late seventies, he developed Alzheimer’s and it became unclear to his family how to proceed with his medical care and wealth management. Since Alex did not formally choose an individual to be in control of his affairs in the event of incapacity, it falls upon the court to appoint a guardian or conservator. Unfortunately, that’s where things get complicated.
What is guardianship?
In some states, a living probate is referred to as a guardianship or conservatorship proceeding*. When someone is unable to manage his or her own affairs – often due to illness or older age – family members may need to seek court intervention to appoint a conservator or guardian. This court-appointed individual is authorized to make financial decisions on behalf of the incapacitated person; the same person or sometimes a different individual also appointed by the court will take over control of everyday matters including medical decisions. These living probate proceedings are public, time-consuming, and expensive.
3 Reasons You Should Avoid Living Probate
In the process of living probate, the court tries to settle on solutions that will fit the incapacitated individual’s best interests. That being said, there is a much better way. Here are just a few of the reasons guardianship and conservatorship are not ideal fallbacks:
- Cost: To put it simply, living probate is expensive. The legal fees associated with court-appointed attorneys representing incapacitated individuals can chip away at their estates very quickly. Living probate also brings your affairs into the public sector.
- Privacy: Alex may not have wanted his family to have to experience the financial and emotional costs of his living probate court proceedings, but he may also have felt less than enthusiastic about his personal affairs being discussed in a public forum.
- Clarity: In addition to it being costly and a compromise of privacy, living probate is also full of guesswork. If Alex had assigned powers of attorney and established long-term care provisions in his estate plan, his affairs would be handled exactly as he wished in the event of his incapacity. When the court is involved, they usually apply default rules of state law, which means the legislature is essentially making some choices for you and your family.
How to Structure Your Estate Plan to Avoid Living Probate in Maryland
So, what does an individual like Alex need to do in order to avoid the chance of his family having to go through living probate? There are a few specific steps we can take to make in planning your estate to ensure your affairs never end up in a court-appointed guardian’s hands:
- Powers of attorney: A complete estate plan includes named powers of attorney who will fulfill the roles of guardians and conservators in the event of your incapacity. The difference is that these individuals will be chosen by you rather than by the court. There are a number of different types of powers of attorney for specific purposes, such as a healthcare power of attorney or a general durable power of attorney, the latter of which controls the management of your finances.
- Long term care planning: Although you may never need long-term care, building a strategy for it into your estate plan will allow you to relax knowing that you’ll receive long-term care according to your wishes if that becomes necessary. This type of planning also helps protect the assets in your estate plan from being used up on medical expenses before going to your beneficiaries.
Seek Estate Planning Professionals
Because time can be of the essence when dealing with medical or financial issues, it is crucial that you have the appropriate documents prepared to facilitate these transactions when you are unable to participate. At McDonald Law Firm, Andre O. McDonald an experienced estate planning attorney can help guide you through this process and draft the necessary documents so that they follow all applicable formalities to ensure validity.
We are here to help.
Are you ready to sit down with a qualified estate planning attorney to see how you can ensure that your estate plan is valid? If your answer is yes! Give Andre O. McDonald, a knowledgeable Howard County estate planning, special needs planning, Medicaid planning and veterans pension planning attorney a call at (443) 741-1088 to schedule a consultation.
DISCLAIMER: THE INFORMATION POSTED ON THIS BLOG IS INTENDED FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY AND IS NOT INTENDED TO CONVEY LEGAL ADVICE.
*It’s important to note that these terms are used in slightly different manners from state-to-state, with some states using “guardian” and “conservator” interchangeably. Others maintain the distinction of a guardian being a person who makes decisions about medical care and living arrangements, whereas a conservator makes decisions about property and assets. In either case, the guardian or conservator is essentially a substitute decision maker that’s authorized by the court to make decisions on behalf of the incapacitated person.