What is a Ward of the Court?

What is a Ward of the Court?

People essentially become wards of the court because they are unable to take care of themselves at some level and require certain legal protections.

This legal designation is also commonly called being a “ward of the state” and may apply to minors as well as adults. It’s also important to understand that a ward is not necessarily someone who has no family or support system within the community. Rather, they may require enhanced protections beyond what a legal guardian or family can provide. Other salient issues involve otherwise responsible legal guardians not wanting to bear the sometimes onerous financial burden associated with minor children or adults who unable to maintain self-care.

To say that the process and issues involving wards of the court are complicated would be something of an understatement. In an effort to provide loved ones with a working understanding of what it means to be a ward of the court, we hope the following overview proves useful.

How Does One Become an Adult Ward of the Court?

As we are acutely aware, not all adults have the ability to care for themselves adequately. Whether that stems from a disability, age, or illness, the courts can provide enhanced protections to ensure ongoing treatment, care, and financial oversight, among other items.

An adult ward of the court may have no remaining family members to step up as a legal guardian. Others may indeed have loved ones that are willing to act as their guardian but are not necessarily in a position to shoulder burdens such as financial support as well as caregiving. Still, other wards have court-appointed guardians connected with government agencies. These professional organizations may include the following.

  • Social Services
  • Human Services
  • Mental Health Agencies
  • Health Departments
  • Departments for Aging Adults

In order to become an adult ward of the court, that person must undergo a review process that may include assessments by medical and psychiatric professionals who support a claim the person is not competent to successfully maintain minimum health, safety, and financial standards. In the vast majority of cases, the courts will hold a hearing and secure written and oral testimony from experts, friends, and family members, among others. If deemed incompetent, the individual may enjoy the legal protections afforded by the court.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the courts do not necessarily impose guardianships. People who recognize they are seeing the signs of diminished capacity to maintain their health, well-being, and estates, can work with an attorney to voluntarily petition the court. In these instances, the potential ward of the court can have substantial input about the parameters of the guardianship and who the court appoints to that station.

In other cases, a friend or family member can petition the court on someone’s behalf, even in cases of involuntary guardianships. These cases can be emotionally taxing for family members, particularly when your loved one does not recognize their failing state. In these involuntary cases, the ward generally has little or no input about issues such as oversight of their well-being or the designated guardian. The court imposes what it believes is in the best interest of the ward.

What Does an Adult Guardian Do?

A court-appointed guardian is often tasked with overseeing healthcare and financial planning decisions. It’s not uncommon for the guardian to work closely with the ward through the process and move forward with the person’s full consent. These are common items a guardian works with the ward.  

  • Place of Residency
  • Mental Health Treatments
  • Physical Health Treatments
  • Bill Payments
  • Personal Affairs
  • Estate Planning
  • Last Will & Testament

If the ward has significant financial resources, the court may also appoint a conservator with some expertise to manage their estate. The guardian, on the other hand, advocates on behalf of the ward’s best interest in all other matters and generally submits periodic reports to the court.

How Long Can an Adult Remain a Ward of the Court?

Once a person has been deemed a ward of the court, that legal designation is usually only removed in the event they are no longer hindered. In some instances, the court may dismiss the guardianship because it’s in the person’s best interest. Although the latter tends not to be the norm, people who have recovered from a physical or mental health condition may see the ward designation lifted, and the guardianship discontinued. In the overwhelming majority of cases, wards of the court remain so until they pass away.

When Does A Minor Child Become A Ward of the Court?

When children are deemed wards of the court, the circumstances and prevailing issues can be quite different. For example, when the court appoints a legal guardian, it is more often not the case that they become financially responsible for support. In these cases, guardians are also not generally liable for other expenses associated with the child. However, when children become wards of the court, parental rights are usually terminated.

This is an important distinction for minors and parents alike to understand. That’s because there are instances when the court may assume authority over the child even though the minor remains in the custody of a parent. In this scenario, the court has asserted some degree of authority but has not yet gone as far as to remove parental oversight. In such cases, minors are not necessarily a legal ward of the court.

That same reasoning holds true in cases when minors work with an attorney to successfully petition the court to be declared emancipated. Although such minors are no longer under the legal control or protection of a parent or guardian, they are not automatically under the court’s protection either. Therefore, they do not meet the legal standard of a ward of the court.

Another compelling situation is when minors commit crimes and are incarcerated. The mere fact that the state has assumed control and placed the child in a correctional facility does not necessarily make them a ward of the court. As long as a parent or appointed guardian is in place, the minor may not be considered a ward.  

What Triggers A Minor Becoming a Ward of the Court?

Like the adult process, there are a number of ways that a child can go from being the responsibility of a parent to a ward of the court. Sadly, ranked among the more prevalent pathways, the court places children under its protection when they are neglected, abused, or otherwise mistreated. We hear and read about many extreme cases in the media of children being subjected to squalor, malnutrition, and other horrors. The legal protections of the court are often inserted until the children can be treated, and a suitable living environment can be secured.

In other cases, the court may proactively take control over wayward youths. It’s not unusual for a minor with a growing criminal record, history of drug and alcohol abuse, or mental health issues to be removed from a parent’s custody. Wards may be placed in institutional settings that include rehabilitative programs. The court’s goal in cases of wayward youths is to redirect negative behaviors and integrate them as productive members of the community.

There are also cases when parents are physically or mentally unable to provide the stable homelife a child requires. Whether that evolves from diminished physical health or an emerging mental condition, parents have the option to work with an attorney and petition the court to place their child under its protection. Parents are often required to sign over custody in voluntary petitions. In these types of cases, parents can have significant input regarding placement and the future well-being of their child. It’s also not unusual for parents to regain their capacity to care for a child and ask the court to reinstate their rights.

Protect Your Loved One’s Rights & Interests

If you or a loved one is facing the possibility of becoming a ward of the court, or you fear for how guardianship will transpire in a known or unknown future scenario, it’s imperative that you engage the best legal counsel possible. The legal hurdles, hearings, and documentation required to negotiate the process tend to be highly complicated. And, missteps can cause unexpected setbacks and a less than desirable result. Whether you are considering an adult wardship, or want to protect a minor child’s future, Lilac City Law has the experience and compassion to diligently guide you through the process and get the outcome you deserve.

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What is a Plenary Guardian?

What is a Plenary Guardian?

If you have a teenage child or young adult child with an intellectual or developmental disability (IDD), you may have concerns over how they will navigate the world as an adult. You may be wondering whether you need to assume legal guardianship to protect them from potentially costly mistakes. It is only sensible to think about whether or not they may need your help in making important life decisions moving forward. That is why it is important to learn more about different types of guardianship. The more you learn about the legal avenues that are available to you, the better you will be able to decide what is best for your child.

What is Plenary Guardianship?

Plenary guardianship is the official legal term for full guardianship. It is the most complete form of guardianship that can be granted by the court — where you take full decision-making responsibility for your child.

Deciding to seek full guardianship for your child is a major choice that should not be made lightly, as it will remove all of your adult child’s legal rights to make major life decisions. The last thing you want to do is lower their quality of life, so you will want to discuss the possibility of plenary guardianship with multiple key figures in your child’s life to ensure you are completely certain about your decision. These figures may include your special needs lawyer, the child’s other parent, your child’s primary physician and other medical experts. Not only will these experts help you decide what your child really needs, they can also help you present a complete argument to the court if you find you need to seek plenary guardianship.

If you do get plenary guardianship from the court, you will take over responsibility for some or all of your child’s major life decisions, including:

  • Voting
  • Driving
  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Medical decisions
  • Financial decisions
  • Entering into contracts
  • Living arrangements
  • Creating a will

There are definitely individuals with such a severe IDD that they require plenary guardianship. For those individuals, plenary guardianship is a necessity for their safety and those around them. But it is also important to understand that plenary guardianship is often not necessary. Just because someone has an IDD, even a fairly significant IDD, does not mean that they should have all of their rights taken away and put in the hands of someone else — even someone as well-intentioned as their parent.

Why Do Parents Seek Plenary Guardianship?

The primary reason for plenary guardianship is to ensure the safety of the individual under guardianship. An IDD can be so severe that it can make an individual vulnerable to dangerous decisions and/or being taken advantage of by others. You want your child to live a relatively safe, comfortable, secure life. If you are certain that having full rights to get married, divorced, drive, enter into contracts, make medical decisions, make financial decisions, and so on, is likely to put your adult child in significant danger, it may be necessary to take away those rights.

How to Decide if Plenary Guardianship is Necessary

Seeking plenary guardianship for your adult child with an IDD or soon to be adult child is one of the biggest decisions you will ever make. You love your child and want what is best for them — and that may mean taking over some or all of their decision-making through full guardianship. But how do you decide if plenary guardianship is the right choice?

There is no simple, easy answer to this question. But there are some questions you can ask yourself and other experts like your special needs attorney that can help guide your decision, including:

  • Is your child completely incapable of making health care or financial decisions? Decisions like whether to get a life-saving surgery, take birth control and pay rent are extremely important choices that adults must make for their own well-being. If you do not believe your child is capable of making such decisions, you may feel compelled to take over such decisions to ensure their safety. 
  • Can your child make some major decisions with reasonable — or even extreme — assistance or accommodation? Many young adults with an IDD are capable of making some major decisions, particularly if they have some help from others that they can trust. It is far better to err on the side of caution when it comes to taking away your child’s rights to make their own decisions both for their happiness and your own. 
  • Is there a less extreme legal option you can utilize other than plenary guardianship? Plenary guardianship is considered the most drastic choice because it fully removes the rights of your child and puts them in your hands. There may be other options, like limited guardianship or power of attorney, that would allow you to provide adequate protection without the need to take away all your child’s rights. 

Alternatives to Plenary Guardianship: Limited Guardianship

If after careful consideration you determine that your child is unable to make some decisions safely due to their IDD, but not all, you could seek a limited guardianship. As the name implies, a limited guardianship is granted to address specific limitations the individual with an IDD may face. For example, if you know that your child is not capable of making sound financial decisions but is capable of making other major decisions like driving or choosing a life partner, you could seek a limited guardianship for financial matters. 

Alternatives to Plenary Guardianship: Power of Attorney

A power of attorney is even less restrictive than a limited guardianship. It grants you the power to make specific decisions on behalf of your child, such as health care decisions or financial decisions. You could get a power of attorney to help in the areas where you know you are needed without having to go through the extensive process of getting guardianship. 

Remember — The Court Will Err on the Side of Caution

As you are making your decision about what type of guardianship or legal option you want for your child with an IDD, it is important to keep the priorities of the court in mind. Generally, courts are averse to taking away any more of an individual’s rights than they have to. You are going to have a much harder time convincing a court to give you plenary guardianship than you would limited guardianship. Power of attorney will be easier to get than limited guardianship. 

Of course, if you are absolutely certain that plenary guardianship is necessary and you and your attorney can provide sufficient evidence and a compelling argument, you will likely be granted full guardianship. 

Trust Your Judgment and Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

You know your child better than anyone — which means you are the best-equipped to determine what kind of help they need as they come into adulthood. However, since the question of plenary guardianship is so significant, you should not be afraid to seek help as you make your choice. Your family physician, any specialists your child sees, and your special needs attorney have likely all encountered similar situations with other patients/clients. They can give you some insight that will probably make you feel better about your final decision. They can tell you about examples they have seen of full guardianship, experiences of adults with IDDs, information about the legal hurdles you may face and more. 

In the end, it will be up to you whether you choose to seek plenary guardianship, limited guardianship, power of attorney or some other avenue to protect your adult child with an IDD. But you will likely feel better having consulted with experts before you finalize your decision. 

Getting Help with Guardianship Decisions

For parents of children of with an IDD, the approach of their 18th birthday can bring mixed feelings. On the one hand, you know it is a joyous occasion that your child has reached one of the great milestones of life — as with every new 18-year-old, they gain the right to vote, to marry, to become part of the armed forces and to move out on their own. But the reality of their IDD could give you serious hesitation about leaving them to their own devices. You know better than anyone how capable — or incapable — they may be to make significant life decisions. You want to protect them, and you may need to take legal action to do so.

At Lilac City Law, we understand how difficult it can be to decide questions of guardianship for an adult child with an IDD. We want you to know that you do not have to go through this process alone. We are committed to helping our clients find the best available option for their children and their own wellbeing. We can help you decide if full guardianship is the right choice for your child and we can help you seek guardianship from the court.

If you have questions about plenary guardianship and your other options for protecting your adult child with an IDD, please reach out to us using the contact form below or just give us a call. It is our mission to help you protect your family, and we are ready to assist in whatever way we can. 

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12 Months of Estate Planning: A Plan to Get Your Estate Plan Set up in 2020

12 Months of Estate Planning: A Plan to Get Your Estate Plan Set up in 2020

Estate planning can be one of the most important things you do for your family’s future, but it can also be overwhelming. Between heavy subjects you don’t want to think about, the need to do a lot of paperwork, and everything else going on in your life, it can be too easy to keep putting off your estate plan until later. The problem is you never know when you will need it. Get started before it’s too late by doing just a little bit at a time.

January: Determine Your Goals

Who do you need to take care of? Do you have a spouse that relies on your income? Children that still need an education? Grandchildren that you want to give a head start in life? Charities or other important causes that you wish to support?

Your estate plan isn’t a chore you have to check off to be a responsible adult. It’s something you want to do to achieve your goals. There are many types of estate planning tools available that work best in different situations. To pick the right tools, you need to begin with a plan for what you want to do — just like drawing up the blueprints for a house.

February: Take Inventory

After you know who you want to support, you need to know how you can. What assets do you have? Your home? Cash savings? Investments? A business? Family heirlooms?

When you divide your estate, you may wish to provide some loved ones with financial support and others emotional support in the form of specific items that will mean more to them. It’s also important to understand that if you have any debts, your creditors will take precedence over your heirs, so you need to account for those as well.

March: Create a Will

Wills are the most common estate planning tool because they are the simplest way to ensure that each of your loved ones is cared for in the way that you’ve chosen. You can create a will on your own, but there are some legal technicalities that could leave your will open to challenges or having some of your wishes not honored. An estate planning attorney can help you avoid those complexities. Even if you plan to use other estate planning tools, having a will is still a good catchall for things that may not otherwise be covered.

April: Name Beneficiaries

When you name beneficiaries on your bank accounts and investment accounts, those accounts automatically go to your chosen beneficiaries upon your death. This allows those beneficiaries to receive financial support without having to wait for your will to go through probate.

The main benefit to taking this step is so that any family members who need immediate financial support can receive it. For example, if they relied on your income to cover their living expenses, they may not have enough money to buy groceries or to make rent or mortgage payments on your home that they continue to live in.

May: Consider a Trust

A trust is another way to keep assets out of probate and transfer them directly to family members. Again, the goal is to skip the weeks or months of delays it takes to execute your will in probate.

A trust can also be used to ensure that the funds you leave go towards your intended purpose. You may leave a trust for your spouse’s living expenses or your children’s schooling. You may also restrict your children’s or grandchildren’s access to their inheritance until they are older and wiser and will hopefully put it to good use.

June: Plan for Your Healthcare

In addition to planning for what happens after you’re gone, you also need to have plans for what happens if you can’t make decisions for yourself while you’re hospitalized for a serious accident or illness. Even in close families, family members may disagree about what you want, and doctors may not be able to legally follow their instructions.

To ensure your wishes are honored, consider a living will, advanced healthcare directive, or medical power of attorney. These documents allow you to designate a trusted loved one to make decisions on your behalf with full authority. You can also include any specific treatments or end-of-life options that you want your agent to request on your behalf.

July: Designate a Financial Power of Attorney

Like the person you select to make your healthcare decisions, your financial power of attorney will step in if you’re unable to manage your finances. A full durable financial power of attorney gives your agent the ability to manage your bills and assets if you’re ever temporarily or permanently incapacitated.

You can also use a financial power of attorney when you’re still able to care for yourself to some degree but need extra help with certain tasks. For example, you might sign a limited scope power of attorney allowing a loved one to manage your checking account and pay your bills.

August: Look Into Life Insurance

Life insurance is another tool you can use to provide for your family financially when you’re unable to. Many working people opt to buy a policy large enough to replace their expected future income to protect their spouse’s and children’s lifestyles that were planned around that income. You can also use life insurance to guard against things like medical debts from reducing what you can leave to your family.

As with your other assets, you will need to name one or more beneficiaries in your life insurance policy or provide for the cash value of the policy when you write your will.

September: Plan for Estate Taxes

Estate taxes generally only affect families with multi-million dollar net worths, but you still need to be aware of them. Estate taxes can be particularly devastating when your net worth is mostly in real estate, a business, or other non-liquid assets. This type of situation often forces a family to sell a treasured home or multi-generational business to pay the tax bill. By planning how you structure your estate ahead of time, you can avoid taxes or at least make sure your family will have the ability to pay them.

October: Protect Your Business

In one sense, a business is like any other asset. You can leave it in your will to a loved one, or it can be part of your general estate to be divided up between your heirs.

However, businesses also have to be maintained if they are to continue to provide for your family. The death of an owner or key employee can be highly disruptive to the business and possibly even put it out of business. You should create a succession plan that provides for continuity of operations no matter what happens and that also gradually prepares your loved ones to follow in your footsteps if that’s your goal.

November: Organize Everything

Your estate plan is no good if no one knows about it to put it into action. Keep all of your important documents together in a fireproof safe that your family knows the location of. You may also wish to leave copies with your attorney or in a bank safe deposit box. Again, tell your family.

When you have a medical power of attorney or financial power of attorney, give copies to your doctors or banks in advance. Don’t forget to give them updated documents if you change or cancel your existing plans.

December: Review Everything Each Year

When you stop to reflect on another year gone by, think about how the changes during the year will affect your family’s future. New children may be born, others may grow up and no longer need as much help, and you may have new wealth to consider. While you don’t need to redo your estate plan every year, you should update the relevant portions of it after major life changes so that it continues to meet your goals for your family.

Estate Planning with Lilac City Law

Lilac City provides a full range of estate planning services and can help you develop a comprehensive plan for you and your family. We can help you put it together over the next year or help you get it done even faster. To learn more, contact us now to schedule a consultation.

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How Should I Plan for Temporary Guardianship in My Family Protection Plan?

How Should I Plan for Temporary Guardianship in My Family Protection Plan?

A temporary guardian assumes the role of a guardian for a limited amount of time. You may need sudden medical care, or if you’re no longer able to care for your children, you may need someone to step in while the permanent guardian prepares to take on their role. To ensure that everything goes smoothly, you should have a plan for this in your planning documents.

What is a Guardian?

A guardian is a person that makes important financial, medical, and other decisions for another. An adult may need a guardian if an illness or injury renders them unable to care for their own affairs either temporarily or permanently. A child may need a guardian if something happens to their parents so that the parents aren’t able to care for the child.

What is a Temporary Guardian?

Unlike many guardianships, which are indefinite, a temporary guardianship lasts for a specific amount of time or until a certain condition is met. Once the temporary guardianship ends, a permanent guardian takes over if one was nominated, other provisions of your estate plan take effect, or your family and a court reach a decision.

Here are some scenarios where a temporary guardian may come into play.

  • You live far away from family including who you would want to be your primary guardian. In the event of a sudden illness or accident, you designate a close friend to handle your affairs until your family member is able to arrive and take over.
  • You need a substitute in case your selected guardian has a change in circumstances that makes them temporarily or permanently unable to fulfill their duties.
  • You are a military spouse and need someone to take over if something happens to you while your spouse is deployed until your spouse can return home.
  • A sudden emergency makes it impossible for you to complete the full guardian nomination process in time.

What Happens at the End of a Temporary Guardianship?

A temporary guardianship only has legal effect for the designated time or until the specified condition is met. At the end of temporary guardianship, it would be as if you didn’t have a guardian at all. If you have the mental capacity to do so, you can extend the guardianship. If you do not have mental capacity and have no other plan in place, the court may consider what the temporary guardian has done so far when deciding on a permanent guardian, but the fact that they were your temporary guardian is not a deciding factor in selecting the permanent guardian.

What is an Informal Guardianship?

You may sometimes hear a temporary guardianship referred to as an informal guardianship. This is because the temporary guardianship may be set up outside of the courts. Often, the informal guardianship is set out in a notarized letter. This is not as strong as a power of attorney or full guardianship but can still be useful in certain situations. One of the most common uses is when a child will be going to live with a relative for a while and the parent will still be able to address any concerns that arise while the relative assumes primary care.

What is a Testamentary Guardianship?

A testamentary guardianship is a guardianship listed in a parent’s will. This is another type of informal guardianship.

It is not possible to legally leave a child to another relative in a will even when well-intentioned and the whole family agrees. The job of a will is to answer questions about property distribution.

What a testamentary guardianship does is simply to make the wishes of the parent known. Courts will usually honor these wishes on a temporary basis if the family is in agreement, but the full guardianship process will need to happen before the guardian becomes permanent.

What is an Emergency Guardianship?

Some people may refer to the temporary guardianship they’ve set up as an emergency guardianship, but an emergency guardianship usually means a temporary guardian appointed by the court. Courts usually appoint emergency guardians when someone has a serious accident or illness and needs a guardian but never nominated one. The court appoints the emergency guardian for a limited period of time to handle the emergency while the regular guardianship process plays out.

What is a Limited Guardianship?

A limited guardianship means the guardian has limited powers. For example, you may wish to appoint a guardian to make medical decisions and a separate conservator for financial decisions. A limited guardianship can either be temporary or permanent.

Do I Need a Temporary Guardianship if I Have a Permanent Guardian?

Even if you’ve nominated a permanent guardian, the court still needs to formally approve the guardianship before it can take effect. Designating the same person to act as your temporary guardian can avoid any ambiguity about what should happen while that process plays out. In addition, you may still need a backup temporary guardian in case the permanent guardian can’t immediately step in.

Do Grandparents or Other Relatives Automatically Become Guardians of Minor Children?

Grandparents or other relatives do not automatically become guardians of minor children if something happens to the parents. They can generally take the children in temporarily as long as there are no objections from the rest of the family, but their authority to make decisions regarding school, doctors, etc. would be limited to emergency decisions only. In addition, any disputes between family members about what should happen could be disruptive to the children’s lives during an already difficult time.

What if the Parents are Divorced?

A temporary guardianship or other arrangements can’t override the other parent’s parental rights. Generally, both parents would need to agree to a temporary guardianship. For example, both parents may want to jointly make a plan in case something were to happen to both of them.

Otherwise, courts would generally look to one parent to take over if something happened to another. For example, if two divorced parents with joint custody lived in the same town and one was hospitalized, the child would usually go to live with the other parent rather than a temporary guardian appointed by the one in the hospital. If they lived far apart, a temporary guardian might come into play while travel and other arrangements are made.

Should Children Know About Temporary Guardianship Plans?

Depending on their age and maturity, it can be a good idea to let children know your plans for a family member to take care of you and/or them if something were to happen. This allows you to gain their input and can also ease fears they have about being orphaned that you may not even be aware of.

What is a Temporary Guardian’s Financial Responsibility?

You generally maintain financial responsibility for yourself and your dependent children even when you’re incapacitated. The temporary guardian may have the right to use your funds to further your and your child’s interests. This would be subject to any financial planning documents you have in place.

To make this process easy and avoid burdening the guardian, you should account for this in your planning documents. You may wish to set aside specific funds or make sure your guardian will have access to your checking and savings accounts.

Can a Temporary Guardianship Be Terminated Early?

If you have sufficient mental capacity to do so, you can terminate a temporary guardianship you established for any reason. A family member or other interested person may also petition a court to end a temporary guardianship. They may believe that you were not of sound mind when you established the guardianship or that the guardian isn’t fulfilling their duties. The court would then make a decision that it believes is in the best interest of you and/or your children.

Do I Need a Lawyer for a Temporary Guardianship?

Even though you can set up an informal guardianship on your own, working with a lawyer helps make sure everything is in the proper form so that it can take legal effect. Your attorney can also help you build in the necessary financial and other arrangements into your family protection plan. To learn more, contact Lilac City Law today.

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