Guardians/Guardianship

The fall is upon us: is your new or soon-to-be adult (child) going off to college?  Besides taking with him or her the extra long sheets and a new credit card, should your child be leaving you with something too: the right to control his or her finances and medical decisions?

When a child reaches the long-awaited age of 18, everything changes and nothing changes at the same time.  Suddenly, your child is a legal adult, yet the child still depends on you for financial and emotional support.  Legally, the rules have changed.  The former legal minor is an adult, who is expected to make financial and medical decisions on his or her own behalf and you, as the parent for the last 18 years, can no longer make those decisions for him or her.

In fact, you are now not even legally required, or allowed, to be notified if your child is in the hospital emergency room, without the child’s consent.  You cannot generally make medical decisions for your child even if your child is not able to make those decisions for himself or herself, without the child’s consent.  And, what if the child suddenly becomes incapacitated and cannot give consent for you to assist in making those decisions?  You still cannot make decisions for your child without a legal document giving you this permission (even if you will ultimately pick up the bill).  Your child needs a health care directive, which authorizes parents to obtain medical information and make medical decisions for the child if the child is unable to make such decisions for himself or herself.

What about his or her finances?  The same is true.  Now the child has the right to sign a contract, such as for a credit card, but you have no right to file for disability benefits on his or her behalf in case of an accident, to file a legal complaint or complete more mundane tasks, such as renew a car registration on his or her behalf.

While in some states the closest living relatives—parents if the child is unmarried—will be allowed to make medical and financial decisions on behalf of a child over 18 without official papers, this is not guaranteed and instead the parents may have to seek guardianship in court.  A health care directive and/or a power of attorney grants and delineates the parent’s authority to act on behalf of the adult child, and obviates the need to resort to extreme measures, such as guardianship proceedings.

The health care designation should also include a living will.  A living will outlines an individual’s advance care directive about life-sustaining medical treatment, and can also cover organ donations.  Since parents and children may disagree on this topic, and parents understandably struggle to make the decision in such a dire situation, it should be discussed in advance and memorialized in a living will.  The health care directive will also include a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) release allowing disclosure of sensitive medical information to parents in the event of a medical emergency.

Both the power of attorney and the health care directive can be tailored to each family’s particular situation.  For example, parents can be granted access to private medical records while the child is competent as well as in an emergency, or full financial power at all times (in a “durable” power of attorney) or only in the event of the child’s incapacity, or, while the child is competent, only over certain types and sizes of accounts and contracts.

This fall, as your children leave for college and become adults, power of attorney and health care directive/ living will documents should be on their college packing lists, ensuring their well-being and your peace of mind.

 

 

In 1993, Congress enacted Section 1917(d)(4)(A) of the Social Security Act, authorizing the establishment of special needs trusts (also called first-party trusts and self-settled trusts). First-party special needs trusts enable disabled individuals to set aside their funds to pay for supplemental care while enabling those individuals to remain eligible for government benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 1396p(d)(4)(A). Following suit, the New Jersey Supreme Court has long recognized special needs trusts as effective asset protection tools which can be used “to plan for the future of a disabled minor or adult . . .” See Saccone v. Board of Trustees of Police and Firemen’s Retirement System, 219 N.J. 369, 383 (2014). First-party special needs trusts are used when individuals with disabilities have assets in their own name, (e.g., due to a lawsuit settlement, direct inheritance, savings or gift), yet want to be eligible to receive government benefits such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid.

Unfortunately, under the current law, individuals with special needs are not authorized to establish their own special needs trusts even if they have the requisite mental capacity and despite the fact that the trust will be funded by assets belonging to them. Rather, a First-party special needs trust can only “be established by a parent, grandparent, legal guardian of the individual, or a court.” See 42 U.S.C. § 1396p(d)(4)(A). Accordingly, if an individual with special needs does not have a parent, grandparent or legal guardian, that individual must petition the Court to establish the first-party special needs trust, even if that individual is competent. This process can be costly and time consuming. A parent, grandparent, or legal guardian, however, can establish a first-party special needs trust for the disabled individual in a relatively short amount of time and is not beholden to the Court’s schedule. While likely a drafting oversight, requiring disabled individuals to have a parent, grandparent, legal guardian or a court to establish their first-party special needs trusts implies that all individuals with disabilities lack the requisite mental capacity to enter into a contract and handle their own affairs. This presumption, however, is unwarranted and offensive.

The Special Needs Trust Fairness Act of 2015 (H.R. 670) introduced in February 2015 by Congressmen Glenn Thompson (R-Pa) and Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ), corrects this problem by adding the individual with special needs to the list of people who can create a first party trust on his or her behalf, giving those individuals the same right to create a trust as a parent, grandparent, guardian, or court. The Special Needs Trust Fairness Act of 2015 proposes to add the words “the individual” to Section 1917(d)(4)(A) of the Social Security Act, permitting disabled individuals to establish their own special needs trusts without a parent, grandparent, legal guardian, or a court. If enacted, persons with disabilities who have no close family would no longer be forced to petition a court and undergo unnecessary legal fees and delays.

On September 9, 2015, the United States Senate passed a companion version of the Special Needs Trust Fairness Act of 2015 by unanimous consent. Hopefully, there will also be swift passage in the House of Representatives.