Posts Tagged ‘elder law’

Arizona Legislative Changes Effective September 12

AUGUST 26, 2013 VOLUME 20 NUMBER 32

The Arizona legislature meets every spring, and in most years adopts changes that affect elder law attorneys, estate planners, guardians, conservators and trustees. The changes become effective nine months after the end of the legislative session, which means that late summer is the time for annual review of new laws about to become effective.

For 2013 the effective date for most new legislation will be September 12. There are a handful of changes affecting our practice area, including:

Fingerprints. The legislature decided to make it a little bit harder for most people to get appointed as guardian or conservator for a family member or other person needing assistance. It has long been the law that unrelated guardians of minors had to submit to fingerprinting; now anyone seeking a guardianship or conservatorship over an adult (related or not) can be required to undergo fingerprinting. Not every person will be required to provide official fingerprints, and it is not yet clear how the courts will implement the new law.

If the courts require fingerprinting, the change will primarily affect family members, since professional fiduciaries already have to go through a fingerprint review to get licensed in the first place. The cost is modest; probably most important for petitioners will be the half-day it usually takes to get to the fingerprinting office, wait in line and get the card. Then it will be submitted for a criminal record check.

This change continues the trend of the past several years to make court proceedings more difficult, and to discourage concerned family members from initiating protective proceedings. While the effect will probably be small, there is a cumulative shift making it more expensive and difficult to seek legal help for a failing family member. It also increases the importance of advance planning to avoid having to turn to the courts for that help.

Simplified probate proceedings for small estates. It has long been possible to avoid probate in Arizona for smaller estates. If personal property in the decedent’s name does not total more than $50,000 (and that does not include joint tenancy property, property held in a trust or property with a valid beneficiary designation) then the person entitled to the property can collect it with a simple affidavit. Even real property can be subject to a simplified probate proceeding, up to $75,000 in value.

Now both of those figures are set to increase. The personal property limit will go from $50,000 to $75,000, and the real estate limit from $75,000 to $100,000. This one will affect a small number of estates, but can save significant costs for those who fit under the increased limits. More good news: the valuation figures are for estates as of the date of collection, not the date of death. In other words, for a decedent’s estate worth more than $50,000 but less than $75,000 the best strategy will likely to be to wait another month before taking action.

Trusts created by married couples. This change is a little bit arcane, but could have broader impact than was probably intended. Many married couples establish trusts that become irrevocable (or partly irrevocable) after the death of the first spouse. Typically, those trusts permit the surviving spouse to manage the assets and, in some circumstances, to even withdraw the principal for their own use. The new law will make it a little harder for surviving spouses to legitimately withdraw money from those trusts — though another family member acting as trustee will not face the same limitations.

With the significant increase in federal estate tax exemption levels (there is currently no tax until the estate is more than $5 million in most cases), many of our clients want to eliminate irrevocable trusts set up by a now-deceased spouse when the estate tax figures were very different. This new law will make that a little more challenging, but not impossible in most cases.

Section 529 plans. Most lawyers have long assumed that money set aside for education of children and grandchildren probably was protected in bankruptcy proceedings — but the law was not explicit. It is now, at least for Arizona. If the education account is a “Section 529 plan” account, then it is not an asset of the person who set it up if they later file for bankruptcy — provided that the bankruptcy filing is at least two years after the account was set up. Incidentally, the beneficiary of a 529 Plan account is also protected in the event of bankruptcy.

It was a slow year at the legislature for those of us involved in estate planning, trust administration and elder law. That’s OK with us.

What Is “Elder Law”?

OCTOBER 15, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 38
At Fleming & Curti, PLC, we practice “elder law.” But what does that mean? Are all our attorneys elderly? (No) Are they all senior members of a religious group? (No) Are all our clients above a certain age? (No) Then what is the significance of the term “elder law”?

Sometimes we rebel against the term. When asked what kind of law we practice, we might say something like: “We limit our practice to guardianship, conservatorship, estate planning, probate, long-term care planning, trust administration and special needs planning.” The problem with that formulation is obvious: it seems oxymoronic to “limit” your practice to seven items — and to be complete we probably should thrown in two or three others.

No one practicing “elder law” likes the term. It is not descriptive of our clients: a significant number of the cases we handle involve children — often even toddlers — and many of our clients are middle-aged children of aging parents. It is not easy for clients to relate to: when asked what constitutes an elder or senior citizen, most of our clients immediately think of someone just a few years older than themselves.

All elder law attorneys think from time to time about better descriptions they might use. The problem with that effort, though, is that no one has come up with a better label, or even one that comes closer to describing what we do.

What do we (elder law attorneys) do? For that matter, what do we (Fleming & Curti, PLC) do? Here’s a sampling:

Guardianship and Conservatorship. In Arizona, a guardian is a court-appointed person who makes medical and placement decisions for an incapacitated adult or a minor child whose parents are not available to handle those duties. A conservator fills a similar role, but handles money; a conservator can be appointed for an adult who is unable to manage his or her finances because of a disability, or for a child. Note that there is no requirement of a finding that the child can not handle money, or that the child’s parents can not do so; a child is legally incapacitated no matter how capable he or she might be, and the child’s parents do not have any automatic right to make financial decisions for him or her (as they do for medical and placement decisions). So that means guardianship and conservatorship may be necessary for the very young, and for adults who are incapacitated — whether by dementia or by other illness or condition.

Getting a guardian and/or conservator appointed is only part of the battle. Once appointed, a guardian or conservator is answerable to the courts, and must file annual reports and accounts. It is an intensive exposure to the legal system, and very difficult to navigate without the help of counsel. Like us.

Estate Planning. We write wills, trusts, powers of attorney and other estate planning documents. Most of our clients in this area are older than, say, their mid-50s — but not because that’s who needs estate planning. Younger people (including the parents of minor children, anyone who drives a vehicle, anyone who has ever seen a doctor) also need to complete estate planning. They just tend not to until they reach an age where they see the value. As one of our clients wisely said: “the two kinds of people you hate to deal with are doctors and lawyers — and when you get older you spend a lot of time with both.”

Older people may have more complicated estate plans. They may have larger tax concerns (because they have had time to acquire more assets). They may have others (children with disabilities, spouses with failing abilities, long-time friends they have helped over the years) who rely on them and need their consideration. They also may feel somewhat more mortal. And so they tend to be the ones who get to the lawyer’s office — and hence the estate planning business seems to be (but should not be) an issue for elders.

Long-term Care Planning. Nursing home costs will likely bankrupt most families if someone has to spend more than a few months in a care facility. Planning for how to deal with that should start early, and include (among other things) long-term care insurance. But most people don’t plan for possible institutionalization. Instead, they bravely insist that “I am never going into the nursing home.” Many of them turn out to be wrong, but most of those won’t know how wrong they were until they are, well, elderly. Most (but certainly not all) of the residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities are elderly. So the practice of preparing people for that eventuality, and of helping spouses and children get ready to place a loved one in such a facility, has come to be thought of as “elder” law.

Trust Administration. While creating and funding a living trust may avoid the probate process, that is not the same as saying that your (successor) trustee will not need any contact with lawyers or accountants. In fact, your trustee will probably need both. But even your trustee will probably be elderly by the time you die. Odds are that you will be, too. So this tends to look like a legal problem involving the elderly, though plenty of trustees are younger and a lot of people sign trusts when they are younger, too.

Probate. Some people don’t plan for probate avoidance, either because they didn’t get around to it or because they consciously engaged in a cost/benefit analysis and decided it wasn’t worth the expense (to them, at the time). Whatever. Probate administration, like trust administration, is an area of practice that often — but not always — involves people who are elderly.

Special Needs Trusts and Planning. This one has the most tenuous link to the elderly. The beneficiaries of most special needs trusts are young — often infants or toddlers. Even the parents of special needs trust beneficiaries may be young — perhaps even in their 20s. So how does this become an “elder law” issue? It’s simple: the government programs and rules that are involved in special needs trust planning, establishment and administration are the same programs and rules involved in long-term care for the elderly. But saying “I’m an elder and special needs lawyer” just doesn’t trip lightly off the tongue, and it begins to sound like we are trying to describe our own circumstances, not those of the people we strive to help.

So that’s what we do as “elder law” attorneys. Is that all we do? No, we also have a few other areas we might work in — like guardianship of minors, advance directive preparation and interpretation, or recovering from abuse, neglect or exploitation. But that’s the bulk of our work.

Feel free to come up with a better, shorter, more user-friendly term. We’ve been working on it for years, but we are confident that there is a good answer out there. Somewhere.

Lawyer Suspended After Filing Guardianship Petition on Client

JUNE 22, 2009  VOLUME 16, NUMBER 45

A lawyer’s job is, of course, to help his or her client to accomplish the client’s goals. Sometimes, though, the client’s capacity may be diminished, and particularly in the elder law practice. What should the lawyer do when the client seems to be vulnerable to financial exploitation, or physical or emotional abuse? How far may the lawyer go to protect the client? When does the lawyer have a duty to take action?

The rules of ethics governing lawyers actually address the question. The American Bar Association has developed “Model Rules of Professional Responsibility,” which have been adopted (in some form) in nearly every state. One of those Model Rules, Rule 1.14, addresses how to deal with a client with diminished capacity. The central principle: a lawyer should strive to “maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship” with the client, despite the diminished capacity. The Rule specifically recognizes that sometimes it can even be necessary for the lawyer to initiate some sort of protective action — possibly including a guardianship or conservatorship proceeding.

Stephen Eugster, a Spokane, Washington, lawyer, thought he faced that question. An elderly widow had consulted him about the estate plan she and her husband had set up before the husband’s death. Although the plan gave considerable control to her son, the widow no longer trusted the son to handle her finances. She wanted to remove him as her agent and trustee, and try to make him return assets she thought had improperly been transferred into his control.

Mr. Eugster prepared new documents naming himself as agent and trustee, and had his client sign them. Then he approached the son about getting further information and transfer of assets. As it happened, the son was also a former client of Mr. Eugster’s.

After a brief inquiry Mr. Eugster decided that his client’s son was acting properly. He wrote to his client, suggesting that she should be willing to trust her son and let him once again take responsibility for all her finances. She responded by seeking advice from a different lawyer, and her new attorney sent Mr. Eugster a letter dismissing him and revoking his authority under powers of attorney and the trust.

That apparently set off Mr. Eugster’s alarm bells. He was convinced, he said later, that his client must not have been competent, and that the new lawyer and her new trustee must have exercised undue influence over her. Without consulting or even visiting her, he filed a petition seeking appointment of her son as her guardian.

Several months, one professional mental evaluation and $13,500 later, the client conclusively established that she was competent and acting on her own initiative. The guardianship petition was dismissed. The client, however, complained to the Washington State Bar Association.

After a lengthy investigation and hearing process the Disciplinary Board of the Bar recommended that Mr. Eugster should be disbarred. The Washington Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, softened the punishment to an 18-month suspension and an order that he repay the legal fees his former client incurred to defend the guardianship. Disciplinary Proceeding Against Eugster, June 11, 2009.

Mr. Eugster had argued that Rule 1.14 recognized that he might have an obligation to actually file the guardianship petition, and that he truly believed that his client was at risk. The Disciplinary Board pointed out that Mr. Eugster had not actually made an investigation to determine whether his client’s capacity had slipped since had last seen her several months before, and that in any event his Petition revealed extensive information obtained from his client during the representation. The Court agreed with the Bar that Mr. Eugster had violated his ethical duties in a number of ways, including acting against his client’s interest, seeking a resolution that ran counter to the purpose for which she had retained him, and disclosure of client confidences.

Four Justices dissented from the Supreme Court’s opinion. All four of them would have imposed permanent disbarment rather than the 18-month suspension of Mr. Eugster’s law license.

What might Mr. Eugster have done if he did think he needed to “protect” his client? The ABA’s Rule 1.14 actually provides several suggestions, none of which Mr. Eugster seems to have considered. As part of the Rules, the Bar offers detailed Comments that lawyers can look to when trying to resolve ethical dilemmas. Comment [5] to Rule 1.14 gives some useful guidance to lawyers who may be concerned about a client’s vulnerability. The basic idea behind the comment: a guardianship petition, while permitted, should be the last resort, after consultations with other professionals, family members, state protective services and other individuals or groups. Always the lawyer should keep in mind the client’s wishes, values, best interests and goals .

Ironically, the lawyer who took over Mr. Eugster’s client seems to have reviewed Rule 1.14 and the Comments — and acted accordingly. One of the suggestions made by the Comment is that the lawyer might seek out appropriate professional services and use powers of attorney and other protective arrangements short of court action. The new lawyer’s approach followed those suggestions perfectly: he had the client sign a new trust and powers of attorney, naming a professional fiduciary to manage her affairs. That allowed the client’s interests to be protected without compromising her desire not to extend her son’s authority over her personal or financial affairs.

The Elder Law Answer Book: A New Resource For Practitioners

OCTOBER 16, 2000 VOLUME 8, NUMBER 16

If you have questions about elder law subjects, you may be interested in a new offering from Panel Publishers. The just-released Elder Law Answer Book provides answers to many common elder law questions.

The new book is written by Robert Fleming, partner in the Tucson law firm of Fleming & Curti, P.L.C., which in turn publishes Elder Law Issues. It addresses a wide range of legal concerns facing the elderly and disabled. The book’s nineteen chapters are divided into five sections:

Establishing and Managing an Elder Law Practice (including both practice and ethical considerations)
Estate and Retirement Planning (including tax and non-tax issues and a chapter on post-mortem estate planning)
Fiduciary Administration (including probate and guardianship proceedings, and the use of powers of attorney)
Paying for Medical and Long-Term Care (including care options, long-term care insurance, the Medicare and Medicaid programs and a chapter on Special Needs Trusts)
Health Care Decision Making and Protection of the Elderly (including chapters on patient autonomy and advance directives, elder abuse and age discrimination)

The book is organized in a convenient Question-and-Answer format, and is written in plain English. Though there are citations to the relevant legal authority throughout, an effort has been made to answer real questions in understandable terms.

A sampling of some of the questions addressed in the Elder Law Answer Book:

Should a living trust be the beneficiary of qualified retirement plans? (Q 4:58)
At what age should a client consider long-term care insurance? (Q 12:10)
Can a patient refuse medical treatment even though refusal will certainly lead to the patient’s death? (Q 17:9)
What should an elder law attorney consider in reviewing a Continuing Care Retirement Community contract? (Q 11:21)
What rights does a surviving spouse have in community property states? (Q 7:25)

Although the Elder Law Answer Book was written primarily for attorneys, it can be a useful resource for other professionals who deal with elder issues on a regular basis, including accountants, financial planners, social workers, nurses and facility administrators. It can help explain complex legal concepts for clients, or introduce elder law issues to practitioners who primarily deal with other (but related) areas of the law. The Elder Law Answer Book sells for $118, and can be purchased directly from Panel Publishers (which is a division of Aspen Publishers). It can be ordered directly from Panel Publishers at (800) 638-8437 or online at the Panel Publishers/Aspen Publishers website.

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