Category Archives: Power of Attorney

What to Do When One Parent Lacks Capacity

happy father and daughterDear Liza, my parents do not have a living trust in place. I need to help them set one up. My father and mother are 91 and 83 respectively. My father has a form of dementia that prevents him from making decision about his property. My Mother is fully capable. Does my Mother have the right to make decisions about a living trust for both of them? Does my father have to sign anything?  I’m sorry that your father is no longer capable of making decisions about his property. Because your father lacks the capacity to understand the nature and consequences of his decisions, he can no longer do any estate planning on his own, even if he’s physically capable of signing his name.

Here’s my  short answer as what kind of estate planning options are available now: your mother can only create an estate plan that includes your father’s property if your father already has a Durable Power of Attorney in place that authorizes her, as his Agent, to create a living trust on his behalf. Not all Durable Powers of Attorney authorize that power, many authorize an Agent to transfer assets into a trust that’s already been created, but not to create a new one.

If your father didn’t sign a Durable Power of Attorney authorizing the creation of a trust, then your mother has two choices:

1) She can create a living trust that holds her 1/2 of the community property. She can leave your father’s property out of that trust. If he dies first, she can have his property transferred to her via a Spousal Property Petition (this is a very simple probate procedure that a surviving spouse can do), and put his property into her trust at that point. This isn’t a perfect solution, because if your mother dies first, your father has no estate plan in place.

     2) She can go to court and have herself named as your father’s conservator – this is a court procedure that, essentially, strips your father of the ability to make legal decisions and allows someone else, a conservator, to do so for his benefit under the supervision of the court. This is expensive, public, and potentially adversarial, but it’s the only way to create a Will or a trust, for someone who now lacks the legal capacity to make their own decisions.

Sorry that I can’t offer you better news, or more options. Good luck.

Planning for incapacity

Dear Liza: My dad recently passed away and he and my mom had no will.  I am the only child and we have had all the bank accounts changed to my moms name and me as beneficiary but I don’t really know where else or what else (will or power of attorney) I should get.  Now that your mother’s just got you to take care of her if she gets sick, you should absolutely get her to sign a Durable Power of Attorney for Property and an Advance Health Care Directive. Both documents can name you as her Agent, the person who can pay her bills or make medical decisions if she’s unable to do so.   You said that she’s healthy now, and that’s great, but all of us get sick now and then and accidents do happen.  A Will is also a good idea, since that will make it easier for her to leave you her assets without your having to go through probate. (When one spouse dies, probate’s not usually necessary.)  All of these documents can be done inexpensively at www.nolo.com. Here’s the link to the Durable Powers of Attorney forms.

Letters documenting Incapacity

Dear Liza: My 91 year old mother had a stroke in April. Her living trust designates my brother as Medical Power of Attorney and myself as Financial POA.   Her lawyer is asking for letters from two doctors stating our mother is mentally incapacitated before he can talk to both of us about her trust.   Why would a lawyer ask for them? Wasn’t the point of the trust to make everything hassle free?  Your mother’s lawyer is asking for letters from two doctors stating that your mother is incapable of managing her own affairs because, most likely, the trust states that you and your brother can act as successor Trustees only upon your mother’s incapacity. The trust probably also states that incapacity is to be determined by two letters from physicians stating, under penalty of perjury, that your mother is incapacitated. Many trusts are drafted this way. The idea is to protect your mother from having her powers as Trustee taken away unless she really can’t manage her own affairs.  Ask the attorney to provide you with letters for the doctors to sign — that shouldn’t be a big deal if, in fact, she isn’t able to manage.

Surgery and Procrastination

So, I have a weird job in that I, literally, talk to people about getting their estate plans up to date many times a week. And I’ve done this for TEN YEARS. Over and over, people tell me that they’ve been procrastinating and feel badly that they haven’t gotten things taken care of. And I listen. In fact, my first question is almost always what prompted my clients to finally make the appointment and get the job done. It’s almost always one of these four things:

  • An upcoming trip.
  • A scary diagnosis or test.
  • A death in the family or a death of a friend.
  • The birth of a child.

Let’s face it, these are the things that get our attention in a deep way. They make mortality real and make us want to do what we can to get things in order. Until something like this grabs us, there are always 200 other ‘important’ things to capture our time and energy.

And here’s my confession: despite my professional focus on estate planning, my family’s estate plan has been out of date for at least four years! Really. Our guardian got divorced; her kids grew up to not get along with mine; our financial situation changed drastically. Every single thing about the plan wouldn’t work.

And guess what? Do you know what made me fix it? It certainly wasn’t because I knew we should. It was reasons one and two on the above list. Not only had we planned our first family trip that required airplane travel to a distant and slightly tropical local, but the week we got back my husband faced major spine surgery. Nothing like filling out hospital admittance papers to get those mortality juices flowing.

So, we redid our plan. We changed our guardians. We simplified our trust for tax planning. We updated our Durable Powers of Attorney and our Advance Health Care Directives. And it felt GREAT to finally fix it. Next up: the earthquake kit, also woefully out of date.

Believe me, I get it if you can’t focus on estate planning right this second. But, please, next time life reaches out and grabs your attention, jump on it. You’ll feel better, I can almost promise.