Guardianship Alternatives

Guardianship is often unnecessary or limited thanks to guardianship alternatives which include appropriate estate planning.

Guardianship is the court process by which a Judge appoints a person to make decisions on behalf of someone who cannot make them for themselves.  Guardianship is a very involved process which removes or reduces the legal autonomy of the individual and appoints a decision maker for that person.  Guardianship can be invasive, time-consuming and costly.  Although guardianship is sometimes necessary and beneficiary to the individual, many clients seek to avoid guardianship and, in fact, Texas (and virtually every state’s) law directs you to use less restricting guardianship alternatives where available.  The best options require preplanning however, so if you want to avoid the need for guardianship, you should consider some of the following guardianship alternatives.  See the article entitled “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort–Consider These Less Draconian Options First” from Kiplinger for more. 

Durable Financial Powers of Attorney

Guardianship often is necessary when an elderly individual loses legal capacity due to dementia, Alzheimer’s or other conditions leading to cognitive decline.   In that case, the person cannot make their own financial decisions anymore, so a guardian would need to be appointed to manage their assets.

However, if an individual has a durable financial power of attorney (POA) in place, then this may not be necessary.  The POA names an individual to take financial action for you if you can’t yourself.  It is usually much better than guardianship as you are the person choosing who will act and you can set the rules as you want.  It is also substantially cheaper than guardianship litigation.  It is also one of the most important estate planning documents for this reason.

You can see here for a bit more on POAs:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/which-powers-should-a-power-of-attorney-include/

Trusts

Trusts are more than just will substitutes.  In this context, the trustee of the trust can control the assets owned by the trust.  So, if the person who created the trust becomes incapacitated, the successor trustee (again a person you choose) can take over and start controlling the assets.  This is often a major reason for clients who create revocable trusts later in life or who have concerns about long-term care or management of their assets.

Medical Powers of Attorney

This echoes the issues of the financial POA, namely that you can appoint a person to make medical decisions for you.  Now, the law does provide default decision makers for medical decisions makers, so this isn’t typically the reason for a guardian.  However, it too is a critical document for several reasons.  Among them, you may not want the default to be your decision-maker, it provides clarity of responsibility and lets the decision-maker know in advance what’s expected of them, and finally, avoids delay in a medical crisis when the documents have to figure out your family history to determine who a default decision-maker is.

Naming Fiduciaries for Minors

Another common guardianship scenario is leaving property to minors.  Although there are multiple state-based alternatives which might be helpful, such as creating UTMA/UGMA accounts (Uniform Trusts for Minors Act/Uniform Gifts to Minors Act), paying to a court registry or possibly to a parent of that child depending on the circumstance.  However, if these alternatives don’t work, you may need a guardian for the minor.

In any case where leaving property is intentional, such as in a will or trust, an easy solution is to establish a trust for the minor within your own documents.  This accomplishes several goals, but here, allows for an adult to hold the property for the child.  They can then spend the assets on their behalf, such as on education, daily living and so on,

Now, the above are mostly proactive steps, so these are what you can do now to avoid guardianship later.  However, if you or a loved one find yourself without sufficiently covering these concerns and contemplating guardianship, there are still some alternatives that might help or help reduce the scope of the guardianship.

Limited Guardianship

This a blog unto itself so this will be brief, but guardianship can be limited in nature.  Essentially, the powers of the guardian are limited so that the least autonomy is taking from the individual as possible.  This could mean that only assets are under the control of the guardian, or perhaps only to control some personal decisions such as medical decisions.

Joint Ownership

Some families take the step of making a family member a joint owner on a bank or other assets.  Now, I didn’t include this as a proactive measure because joint ownership has a litany of difficulties.  It includes the risk of creditor issues, potential concerns over gift making, disruption of the estate, plan, tax implications and lends to family disputes.  However, should you find yourself with the need for guardianship, this can be a less restrictive guardianship alternative.

Social Security Representative Payees

Social Security pays to an account with a designated rep payee for beneficiaries who can’t act for themselves.  So, on this particular account, the rep payee, which is typically a close family member, but could be someone else, is already authorized to control that particular asset.  So, this doesn’t typically completely avoid the need for a guardianship, but does mean that one account receiving income can be accessed and utilized for an individual without the intervention of a guardian.

Community Property Administration by a Spouse

This is distinctly a Texas solution, but we have community and separate property.  Community property is owned by the marriage, as opposed to the individual.  So, depending on the assets of the individual, her marital status and suitability of the spouse to do this, community administration might be a helpful guardianship alternative.

Guardianship Appointment

Although this isn’t a guardianship alternative, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.  You have the power to name the person who you would want to be a guardian for you if guardianship is necessary.  We routinely prepare these for clients so that should guardianship be necessary, you’ve told the court who should do it.  They are very seldom necessary due to the estate planning we put in place, but it serves a belt and suspenders approach to ensure you have as much control over a guardianship process as possible.

Other Alternatives

There are other guardianship alternatives beyond what I included here, but key factor is that preplanning is the best guardianship alternative.  Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect yourself or loved ones from having to pursue guardianship.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 7, 2022) “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort–Consider These Less Draconian Options First”

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What Is the HEMS Standard?

Many trusts for third parties reference “HEMS” language, namely health, education, maintenance and support.  The HEMS standard is used to inform trustees as to how and when funds should be released to a beneficiary, according to a recent article from Yahoo! News, “What is the HEMS Standard in Estate Planning.” Using HEMS language in a trust gives the trustee more control over how assets are distributed and spent. If a beneficiary is young and not financial savvy, this becomes extremely important to protecting both the beneficiary and the assets in the trust. Your estate planning attorney can set up a trust to include this feature, and it is commonly a feature in trusts we prepare.

When a trust includes HEMS language, the assets may only be used for specific needs. Health, education or living expenses can include college tuition, mortgage, and rent payments, medical care and health insurance premiums.

Medical treatment may include eye exams, dental care, health insurance, prescription drugs and some elective procedures.

Education may include college housing, tuition, technology needed for college, studying abroad and career training.

Maintenance and Support includes reasonable comforts, like paying for a gym membership, vacations and gifts for family members.  Many attorneys also expand upon this definition at the request of clients to expressly authorize money to be spent for business opportunities, vehicles, houses and so on.

The HEMS language provides guidance for the trustee.  However, ultimately the trustee is vested with the discretionary power to decide whether the assets are being used according to the directions of the trust.

In some cases, the HEMS standard is essential for asset protection.  For example, if I am the beneficiary of a trust and also my own trustee, it isn’t a good idea for me to have unfettered discretion on using the trust funds.  If I did, a creditor of mine could require me to use that discretion to pay them.  Instead, it would be better if the trust limited the ability to distribute to HEMS as the trust can still assist with my health, education, maintenance and support.  You’ll notice however, that HEMS does not include my creditors. See this article for a similar issue discussing creditors and divorces of beneficiaries. https://www.galliganmanning.com/protecting-inheritance-from-childs-divorce/

Sometimes beneficiary requests are straightforward, like college tuition or health insurance bills. However, maintenance and support need to be considered in the context of the family’s wealth. If the family and the beneficiary are used to a lifestyle that includes three or four luxurious vacations every year, a request for funds used for a ski trip to Spain may not be out of line. For another family and trust, this would be a ludicrous request.

Having HEMS language in the trust limits distribution. It may also, depending on the situation, be beneficial to have distribution restrictions so that the trustee can reply “no” when a beneficiary becomes too used to using trust money.

Giving the trustee HEMS language narrows their discretionary authority enough to help them do a better job of managing assets and may limit challenges by beneficiaries.

HEMS language can be as broad or narrow as the grantor wishes. Just as a trust is crafted to meet the specific directions of the grantor for beneficiaries, the HEMS language can be created to establish a trust where the assets may only be used to pay for college tuition or career training.

Reference: Yahoo! News (Jan. 7, 2022) “What is the HEMS Standard in Estate Planning”

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Revocable vs. Irrevocable Trust – What’s the Difference?

Sometimes you need to look past the trust's name to see if it is truly revocable or irrevocable.
Sometimes you need to look past a trust’s name to see if it is truly revocable or irrevocable.

At first, the difference between a revocable trust and an irrevocable trust may appear very simple. One would think that, as the names imply, a revocable trust is one that can be terminated or amended, while an irrevocable trust is one that cannot be changed.  However, as often happens with the law, things aren’t always what they seem as reported in the article “What’s the difference between a revocable and irrevocable trust” from Market Watch. 

Sometimes you have to look beyond the name of the trust to determine if it is truly revocable or irrevocable.

A revocable trust, often referred to as a revocable living trust, is one that can be changed or terminated by the person who created the trust, whom we shall refer to as a trust maker. A revocable living trust is often used as a substitute for a Will because, like a Will, it can be amended by the trust maker depending on the circumstances, and it can help avoid probate if the trust maker’s property is titled in the name of the trust (or the trust is named as a beneficiary on the trust maker’s accounts and other assets).

But, a revocable trust becomes an irrevocable trust on the trust maker’s death. Also, the trust maker’s incapacity during life may result in a revocable trust becoming irrevocable. This can be confusing because the trust may keep the same name (for example, the John Doe Revocable Living Trust), but, if John Doe is deceased, the revocable living trust is really an irrevocable trust.

A revocable trust is considered almost an alter ego of the trust maker. As a result, a revocable trust does not provide creditor protection. From a tax standpoint, a revocable trust belongs to the trust maker and is included in the trust maker’s estate when calculating the estate tax.

As for an irrevocable trust, one would generally think that it is a trust that cannot be changed. But this impression, too, may be deceptive. A trust maker, beneficiary, or an independent person may be given powers to make certain changes to an irrevocable trust. Those changes may include the removal and replacement of a trustee and the ability to change or add beneficiaries.

An irrevocable trust is considered to be totally separate from the trust maker. It is usually constructed to avoid having the assets of the trust included the trust maker’s estate for estate tax purposes. An irrevocable trust can offer the beneficiary creditor and divorce protection, as well as prudent management of trust assets if the beneficiary is not good with financial matters. That’s why many parents create irrevocable trusts for their children when making gifts instead of making gifts to their children directly.

In addition to the trust maker giving the power in limited circumstances to change certain provisions of an irrevocable trust, an irrevocable trust may be “reformed” by a court, if it can be shown that the trust’s purposes can no longer be carried out.

And many states have passed laws allowing an irrevocable trust to be “decanted” – meaning that the assets of the original trust may be poured like wine into a new trust that includes provisions that are better suited to the current situation. These laws for the most part include safeguards to make sure that this is not a unilateral decision on the part of the trustee or the trust maker and the decanting is permitted only if it is in the best interests of the beneficiaries.

Of course, a trust maker may always prohibit reformation or decanting when creating an irrevocable trust, but, if the trust is to last for generations, it may make sense to allow limited ways for the irrevocable trust to adapt to changing circumstances.

So the next time you come across a reference to a revocable or irrevocable trust, look beyond the name to determine whether the trust is really revocable or irrevocable.

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 8, 2021) “What’s the difference between a revocable and irrevocable trust”

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