The Austin American Statesman reported on a troubling elder competence case that is leading many to call for legal reforms. The story is a reminder of the heartache that may arise when feuding arises within families and relatives engage in costly legal battles.
The 91-year old’s struggles began when two adult daughters told a local judge that they believed their mother was not mentally sound. They worried that she was being financially exploited and was unable to care for her own health. While perhaps rooted in good intentions, the process is an example of how senior guardianships proceedings can go awry when not done carefully.
The senior in this case lived alone until 2009. That year she broke her leg and was required to move into a senior living community. The woman was happy at the facility, and eventually one of her three daughters began helping managing her financial affairs.
Delegating the financial duties to only one daughter caused disagreement between the siblings. They eventually made allegations of abuse, neglect, and exploitation. As required, area senior protective service groups investigated the situation–appointing a guardian ad litem to look out for the senior’s best interest.
The protective services investigation eventually determined that the senior was not being financially exploited and that her health was not at risk. Yet, this was not reached until after a very long back-and-forth between the parties that lasted month, came with mounting legal bills, and caused immense stress for all parties. Ultimately, mediation was required to end the matter. But it was not before the senior had to $30,000 to a court-appointed lawyer as well as $70,000 for her own private attorney. ANother $40,000 was spent by the others involved in the matter.
All of this is leading some familiar with the case to change the law so that adult guardianship cases are handled more efficiently. One advocate explained, “Before we remove somebody’s civil rights, we need to make sure they are, in fact, at risk, that they are being exploited and that they are incapable of making decisions/.”
The lesson: Always act as early as possible to put long-term plans in place. If outside parties truly want to make an issue out of competence, they will have more ammo to drag out a process unfairly if they can point to factors like age or illness. Even if those reasons are baseless, the appearance of some questions can cause a senior problems. The prudent step is always to act now. Make a call to an estate planning lawyer today to bring security and peace of mind.