The Durable Power of Attorney: Of Rights and Relationships

Ancient Italian Stone

There has been a lot of heat generated in the last couple years by groups protesting abuses of guardianship proceedings in several states. In a couple earlier posts this year, I examined what guardianship reform might look like.  In this post I’m combining a reprise of my “prosocial” theme with a popular topic – the general durable power of attorney or DPOA for short.

The DPOA Creates a Legal Relationship

The DPOA is an extremely valuable tool to help us manage our longevity.  Each of us will die one day, but many of us will be affected by some incapacity because of an accident, surgery, condition or disease process.  We don’t usually know if and when we will be affected by incapacity (unless we have a diagnosis of a brain disease like Alzheimer’s or another disease that implicates our cognitive functioning).  It might be temporary incapacity or permanent in nature and worsen over time.  When will we know if we need a DPOA? Well, after it’s too late to get one!

Death is a Certainty, Disability is an Uncertainty

Many of us are reluctant to think about our death, and for some just thinking about disability – particularly Alzheimer’s disease – can be more frightening than the prospect of death!  For this reason, it is difficult for many of us to think about the circumstances under which a DPOA would be used.  But the fact remains that a DPOA is a much simpler, cheaper and less restrictive tool than the alternative faced when one is beset by an inability to manage finances or, worse, incapacity: a conservatorship.  Read more about conservatorship in Colorado on the Colorado state judicial website or check out the Colorado Bar Association’s flyer.  Both an agent under a DPOA and a conservator act in a fiduciary capacity for the principal and the protected person, respectively.  A fiduciary is a person who has a relationship of trust and confidence with another person and the legal relationship is the basis for a duty of a fiduciary to act in furtherance of the other’s persons benefit or in pursuit of their best interests and expressed wishes.  There are many types of fiduciary relationship in the probate court context – but only some of those fiduciaries are court-appointed.  For purposes here, we are talking about an agent named in a DPOA acting as a fiduciary for the principal.

A DPOA is a very powerful document and when the wrong person is named as agent, the agent can do much harm.  But the DPOA is still an indispensable document because of its power to be used “in case of emergency.”  As a planning tool, the DPOA helps people avoid much more invasive and expensive legal proceedings which are typically more work for the agent.  There are ways to draft and tailor a DPOA to deter exploitation and provide for transparency which can make exploitation much more difficult.  Here are several points to consider:

Choose your agent and successor agent very carefully

Many people think getting a DPOA is just filling out a form, but in fact there is lots of counseling which most of us in this field of estate planning and elder law do when we assist our clients in identifying who is the right person for this important job.  Is the person named trustworthy?  Are they financially savvy?  Do they keep good records? Are they careful with money?  Will the agent faithfully perform according to the principal’s expectations or desires?  Remember that the agent works for the principal – and not the other way around!

  • Consider naming a “POA protector”

This person can perform a role similar to that of a more commonly known “trust protector” – someone to look in on things from time to time or on an as needed basis to ensure that the agent is performing their fiduciary role adequately.  A good way of using such a POA protector is to name a third person to perform an accounting or some other oversight role.  This can be particularly helpful in the event the principal loses the ability to manage their own finances or otherwise lose capacity.  While this arrangement may sound intrusive, it may help smooth out bumps in the road among siblings after a parent becomes incapacitated.  An elder parent’s slipping into advanced dementia can cause a lot of conflict in families and a POA protector can help provide transparency which can result in lowering conflict or distrust.

  • Take care to limit or otherwise define an agent’s gifting power

Under the Colorado Uniform Power of Attorney Act, an agent does not have the authority to make gifts to themselves unless the DPOA makes such a grant specifically.  But keep in mind that this prohibition will not deter bad actors – so it can be helpful to spell out such provisions to make the prohibition more apparent to increase the detection of prohibited self-gifting by third parties – like a principal’s bank or other financial institution.

  • Make sure the DPOA refers to “hot powers”

What my colleagues and I refer to as “hot powers” are those powers that most agents will not need, and which must be specifically granted – like the agent’s ability to change the beneficiary on a life insurance policy or an IRA account for example.

  • Remember that A DPOA can be revoked and replaced

Keep in mind that the DPOA is not “written in stone” and can be revoked so long as the principal retains capacity to do so.  This is a relatively simple way to take away an agent’s authority, but if the agent has been acting on a principal’s behalf (either with or without the principal’s knowledge) then the principal will need to contact third parties to notify them of the revocation of the DPOA and/or the agent’s authority.

In the elder law and estate planning context, taking stock of our relationships with those with whom we are close requires us to examine who we are naming for which “job description” and to ensure the named person is the right one to perform the job.  Choose carefully!

© 2018 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

 

May is National Elder Law Month!

Italian Door

Did you know that the first recognition of this month was in 1963, when President Kennedy declared it to be Senior Citizens Month to honor those 65 and older?

I am observing it in my way by continuing to post about topics relevant to elders and the rest of us who aspire to become “senior citizens” …  Today’s post is another in my series on guardianship reform.

I recently read a new publication by Thomas Lee Wright, The Family Guide to Preventing Elder Abuse (2017: Skyhorse Publications). Wright also produced Edith and Eddie,” the 2018 documentary short Oscar nominee, which you can watch here.  I watched this poignant short film about a newly married nonagenarian couple.  There were many things in the short that were left out of the film which concerned Edith’s dementia.  The film could have gone into detail about the legal wranglings relating to Edith’s guardianship, but it didn’t.  To my mind, the beauty of the story was its simplicity: their love for each other.  I don’t want to give a spoiler alert concerning the sad ending, suffice it to say it had to do with Edith’s guardian’s decision-making authority.

Back to the book.  Many aspects of Wright’s book I found to be informative and helpful, but one of the shortcomings I sometimes find about books of this nature which originate from an author’s personal experience, is that its scope tends to be narrow and somewhat reactive to the situation with which the author unfortunately was made familiar.  I did like that many of the chapters are written by others with expertise in the field about which they write and provide different perspectives.

Are the Probate Attorneys and the Guardians of Incapacitated Elder Adults Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem?

As an attorney representing clients involved in protective proceedings or related matters, I work in an imperfect system.  Sometimes I struggle to explain to clients why things work the way they do.   Sometimes they ask me why it is so hard, why it has to be so difficult to take care of a parent.  My answer is always the same: if it were easy to do the right thing, we would live in a vastly different world. There is no black/white or right/wrong in our legal system, even fewer in probate matters as there are many perspectives and viewpoints of someone’s “best interests” in probate court.  A colleague once referred to it as “like a divorce except with five people involved.”  It is in this sense a branch of domestic relations court.

Why is this observation important? Each of us – attorney, client, as well as the other involved in proceedings (and there can be a rather large cast of characters) always need to keep in perspective that we have our own perception of what is happening and why, our own beliefs about what is in another’s best interest, and our probate court system tries to account for these things while respecting due process rights of the elder involved who is not able to make or communicate important decisions relating to the court proceedings.

But I digress, so back to the book… of interest to me were chapters 7 “Working with Professionals” (doctors and lawyers) and chapter 8 “Abusive Guardianships.”  Chapter seven addresses how to work with doctors and lawyers.  Many of my clients with whom I work have not previously hired an attorney.  There are many things to consider in hiring a lawyer in the elder law context, but I think the most important considerations are working with someone you feel you can trust, he uses clear and effective communication skills and answers your questions and provides guidance.

As for chapter eight, I found the co-authors’ very brief “history” of guardianship law to be not helpful and its broad statement concerning the standard of proof in guardianship proceedings is misleading and could easily have been corrected with fact checking.  In Colorado, the standard of proof for establishing a conservatorship is a preponderance of the evidence, while for a guardianship the standard is clear and convincing evidence.  There is no “one size fits all” preponderance of the evidence burden of proof in civil proceedings.

I also found their use of the term “predatory attorneys and guardians” to be vague and misleading.  I was not sure whether the term was used to refer to professional guardians and there were few details to flesh out the use of these terms.  As an attorney in Colorado, I can say that in a Petition for Guardianship or Conservatorship, I must alert the court as to the existence of a medical or general (financial) power of attorney and will typically explain in the Petition why the agent is unable to perform their duties as anticipated.  The advance planning in the form of POAs is not just summarily chucked out the window!

Advance planning does not work 100% of the time.  Complications can arise when an agent is no longer willing to perform because the job is too difficult.  In my practice this typically takes place because of family dynamics and as a result of sibling relationships becoming more fractured and hostile due to an elder parent’s cognitive decline or incapacity.  Sadly, some children readily take advantage of the situation, sometimes out of a sense of entitlement, that the parent “owes” them, or because they have nurtured a lifelong grudge against the sibling who is selected as the parent’s agent.  Sometimes it’s one child with a “misery loves company” modus operandi, these folks are very troubling to their unwitting parent and the adult child the parent has named to assist the parent as agent.

By the time an adult enters the probate court proceedings as a “respondent” named in a Petition for Guardianship or Conservatorship, the elder parent may be in the final stages of advanced dementia and barely rooted in time and place. Court appointed counsel, known as “Respondent’s counsel” may or may not be able to adequately represent the Respondent’s legal interests due to communication difficulties and a court may find it necessary to appoint a Guardian ad Litem to represent the Respondent’s best interests.

No Respondent Goes Willingly to the Hearing on a Petition for Guardianship!

I have yet to hear an elder respondent state, “why yes, your honor, I have really been slipping cognitively and need the court to appoint someone to take care of everything and make decisions for me.”  The cognitive impairment of an elder is often barely noticeable because it tends to happen over time, often gradually.  Some elders refuse to go to a doctor because they suspect they will get a dreaded diagnosis they don’t want.  I sometimes refer to Alzheimer’s as a contagious disease because it often happens that the denial that something is terribly wrong is shared with a spouse, adult child and sometimes others close to the elder with cognitive impairment that puts them at risk to financial predators.  Couple this with the fact that there is no medication to slow the decline or reverse the losses and the result often means waiting until a catastrophe has taken place.  Maybe mom gave away $30,000 of her $60,000 life savings to one of her kids or to a neighbor or to purchase lottery tickets.

There is neither a simple nor an easy solution to this challenge to our legal system.  It will only become bigger and more complicated as the numbers of old and cognitively impaired baby boomers rise and their often fractured family relationships contribute to the dysfunction.

In the next post on this topic I will look at standards for appointing a guardian or conservator as well as the oversight by the court system of these proceedings, which can cover a long span of years.

© 2018 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

A Brief Look at the Thinking Behind Guardianship Reform

Help with wings

Those of us who practice in the field of conservatorships and guardianships (this is Colorado terminology; their precise titles vary from state to state) are now struggling to make sense of the many proposed changes put forward by critics.  I am primarily concerned with the proposed legislation from the Uniform Law Commissioners known as the Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship and Other Protective Arrangements Act (UGCOPAA).  This proposed legislation has been hailed as a modern update to guardianship and conservatorship law.  Where Colorado (in contrast to many other states) has long established uniform guardianship and conservatorship legislations, along with periodic updates, the new uniform legislation is basically “Guardianship 2.0” in that it represents a major and systematic update and overhaul.  The American Bar Association has a good overview of the proposed uniform legislation here.

The Challenges of Reforming Different Systems Among the States

Nationwide, there are many groups and individuals behind efforts to reform guardianship (as the term will be used collectively to refer to both types of legal proceedings).  The different groups have different criticisms and there is no shortage of horror stories about how these “protective proceedings” have gone wrong for many people.  While many people would like to have more uniformity and oversight imposed on the state systems of probate courts, the federal government is neither equipped nor inclined to act as overseer here.  The lack of resources for the much-hailed Elder Justice Act is an example of this unfunded mandate.

There Are At Least Two Different Populations of Vulnerable Persons

Guardianship reform efforts are aimed to assist those identified as the most vulnerable segments of our population: the disabled community (with organizations like The Arc and legal protections like the ADA), along with elder adults with declining cognitive capacity.  This latter population will continue to grow.  The numbers of elders with severe cognitive impairment grows with the numbers of elders, and the Alzheimer’s Association has dubbed my generation of baby boomers “generation Alzheimer’s.”    To my mind, there are two very different “camps” of persons in this proposed legislation.  Suffice it to say that the two segments are generally included as a group together because of the overlapping needs for respect for their rights to dignity and self-determination.

My central concern with the proposed legislation is the point where the two groups interests and needs for protection diverge.  Keep in mind they are very different populations.  I’m using a broad brush here, but we’re talking about needs and protections of a developmentally disabled adult who may be relatively high functioning in some aspects of living and need substantial assistance in others.  They may be able to live independently with assistance.  Contrast this with the large numbers of elder adults who, as a direct result of our unprecedented longevity, have amassed resources, established relationships and lived their own lives prior to succumbing to dementia.  When does one lose the ability to manage one’s own affairs?  That simple question has no simple or easy answer!

Among those who call for guardianship reform in the context of elders, there are a couple groups, those associated with celebrity children of fathers who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease.  These daughters were not allowed sufficient visitation with their fathers due to restraints placed on such visits by their stepmothers, specifically Kasem Cares and the Catherine Falk Organization, who have zeroed in on a right to association as part of guardianship reform.

The Guardianship Reform Movement Is a Diverse Group with Many Diverse Interests Represented

Suffice it to say that some of the diverse interests conflict with each other.  Many of the calls for guardianship reform are in response to the inherent failings of a particular state’s system of oversight.  Nevada’s system in Clark County was the subject of Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker article “The Takeover,” and it documented in horrifying detail how elders were systematically stripped of their civil rights as well as their property, with hardly a nod in the court system to any due process rights.

That reform is needed is not the issue, but the where, how, why and what of that reform should be examined closely, instead of trying to overlay a “fix” for a problem which may not exist or by creating new problems by reforming a system in its entirely when there were parts of it that were working fairly well.  If you take a poll of attorneys in this field, you would be hard pressed to find people who don’t have concerns about how our system works and most of us could list an array of its shortcomings.  Does this mean the system is broken? I don’t think so. Does it need improvement? Yes.  Our legal system is a functioning part of our government that must respond to the diverse array of interests, pressures and fiscal priorities and realities.

What I find disturbing about all of this is the clamor to “fix” a broken “system” – as if all we needed to do was pass some new legislation that would magically transform the adult protective proceedings system into a streamlined, dignity-honoring and civil rights protecting regime. In our obsession to fix a problem and then move on to the next thing, we overlook the opportunity for thoughtful change and typically neglect the big picture of looking at the entire system – both the working and the failing parts, with an eye to improving particular outcomes.  This takes longer obviously, but avoids the throwing the baby out with the bathwater approach.

Next time, I will look more deeply into the criticisms levelled at attorneys and fiduciaries working in the field of conservatorships and guardianships.

© 2018 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Does Guardianship Law Need Reform in Colorado?

guardianship reform

At the Threshold

This may seem like a pretty basic and simple question, maybe too simple for some – but it lies at the heart of a debate currently raging in many parts of our country.  A couple axioms come to mind here – first: “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater;” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  I don’t want to appear trite here, but we do first need to identify and distinguish the baby from the bathwater so to speak, as well as identify the system (which is imperfect as all systems are) and/or its parts which may be working as anticipated or which are in fact broken.

So what is it that people mean by “guardianship reform?”

Well, it depends on who you ask! I like this definition of law reform:

Law reform is the process of analyzing current laws and advocating and carrying out changes in a legal system, usually with the aim of enhancing justice or efficiency. By promoting and executing changes in a legal system, individuals and groups can implement changes in a given society. Law reform can be achieved through litigation, legislation, or regulatory change, and often requires the collaboration of a variety of groups in different practice settings. Law reform may also be defensive – stopping changes in existing law through litigation or legislative advocacy.

Here is an explanation on the need for guardianship reform as explained by the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), of which I am a longtime member:

Guardianship is an ancient legal device dating back to early Greece and the Roman Empire.  It protects at-risk individuals and provides for their needs.  At the same time, because it removes fundamental rights, it should be considered a last resort when no appropriate less restrictive alternatives are available. With the aging of the population and rising numbers of persons with mental disabilities, adult guardianship has received increased scrutiny in the last 25 years.  The history of guardianship reform shows a marked advance in law but uneven implementation in practice. Guardianship reform laws have focused on five related areas:

  • Stronger procedural due process protections in the appointment process;

  • Changes in duties and powers of guardians, and provisions for limited guardianship orders;

  • Guardian accountability and court monitoring; and

  • Public and agency guardianship.

With the “silver tsunami” of aging baby boomers, there can be no doubt that more attention and resources are needed to address this challenge for each state and the federal government (which has its own system for its programs) of crafting a workable and cost-effective legal framework which honors human dignity, protects fundamental rights of elder disabled or incapacitated persons, provides accountability of court-appointed fiduciaries (guardians and conservators) and honors other important values.

Is Guardianship Usually Considered a “Last Resort?”

As an attorney practicing in this field and appearing regularly in probate courts, I can say that under our statutory framework (the Colorado Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act or “CUGPPA”), as evidenced by the Colorado State Judicial Department’s proscribed form for a Petition for Guardianship, as consistent with applicable case law, and as a result of certain judicial officers questions posed to counsel and interested parties to a protective proceeding – the imposition of a guardianship is a last resort.

When I counsel clients for estate planning and we discuss the importance of durable powers of attorney, I stress the importance of choosing the right person to serve as agent.  I also state that in nearly all cases, the powers of attorney will work as intended if the need for them arises – but I also caution clients that while a guardianship or conservatorship may be the “nuclear option” in many scenarios, it is sometimes the only effective means to protect a vulnerable adult from the influence of or exploitation by another.  Sometimes I have had to explain in court documents or to an inquiring judicial officer why the power of attorney is not working as intended.  These types of situations can be quite complicated and usually involve some family dysfunction that is expressed as one person’s (often an adult child of an elder) need to try to control a situation or the actions of or access to an elder parent.

Notwithstanding these considerations, once a determination is made that an elder adult is incapacitated and in need of protection, there is supposed to be a range of alternatives which a court can order, ranging from a limited guardianship to an unlimited or “plenary” guardianship.

But a limited guardianship is generally considered unworkable because of the myriad challenges to and difficulties of monitoring a limited guardian’s exercise of authority.

As for the unlimited or plenary guardianship, I would say that this has become the “default” type of guardianship imposed.  This is where my concern about civil rights for elders resonates and why I am looking closely at the new legislation put forward by the Uniform Law Commission (the Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship, and other Protective Arrangements Act or “UGCOPAA”)  for adoption by the states.  The National Center on Elder Abuse has a helpful document which summarizes the goals of the new model legislation.  The American Bar Association urges support of the UGCOPAA for its provisions regarding “supported decision making” as a less restrictive alternative to imposition of a guardianship.

What Do Abuses Have to Do With the Need for Systemic Reform?

My question here is again a basic one.  There can be no doubt that the incidences of overreaching or financial abuse by court-appointed guardians must be remedied, particularly where a state court’s system allowed for such abuse to take place because of the lack of systemic protections of elders’ civil rights including due process.  One of the most infamous examples of this was described in The New Yorker article “The Takeover,” written by Rachel Aviv, a chilling true story which recounts in detail what happened to an elderly couple (and several other elders) in Las Vegas, Nevada and how their daughter was powerless to protect her parents.

I have had a couple clients ask me whether that Las Vegas-style abuse could happen here in Colorado.  I believe it could not happen here, but I remain concerned about the protection of elders’ civil rights.  Remember that the guardianship proceeding is essentially an extinguishment of an elder’s civil rights!

But there is a separate consequence at issue here – once a guardian or conservator is appointed by a court, there remains the issue of court oversight of the appointed fiduciary and this is another place where things can get difficult.  Here’s a link to a recent NY Times article which contains some alarming statistics about the amount of money that has gone missing in reported cases of guardians stealing from their wards.  In each judicial district, Colorado maintains a probate monitor whose job it is to ensure that guardians and conservators (particularly the latter as they manage finances for a protected person or ward) provide the necessary information for filing the required reports.  The Colorado state judicial branch monitors probate cases in other ways as well.

In my next post in this series, I will examine some of the abuses which have been uncovered and publicized and put forward as compelling reasons for guardianship reform.  I wish everyone a happy new year!

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Is Guardianship Reform Coming to Colorado?

One Stone of an Ancient Ring

I’m beginning a series of posts about guardianship reform and its relationship to elder abuse.

What is known as “guardianship reform” is a very hot topic these days.

On the local level, I noticed that a candidate for a Littleton City Council seat made a critical reference to the powers of the Adult Protective Services system to investigate the welfare of a local resident (who apparently has dementia) living in her own home.  In the national press, guardianship reform has received lots of attention.  For Colorado, we have had versions of the Uniform Law Commission’s Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings in our probate code for quite some time.  You can review the User’s Manuals for Guardians and for Conservators in Colorado here.

The Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship and Other Protective Arrangements Act

But there is a newer 2017 version of a uniform law which the Uniform Law Commissioners have prepared for adoption by the states.  It is known as the Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship, and Other Protective Arrangements Act, or UGCOPAA.  You can read more about it here.  A sub-committee of the Trusts & Estates and Elder Law Sections of the Colorado Bar Association is presently reviewing its provisions to examine how its provisions would impact existing Colorado law (our code and case law pertaining to its provisions).  More about that later!

This post is the introduction to the series and so I ask the basic question:

What does guardianship reform have to do with elder abuse prevention?

Apparently, plenty!  Particularly if you happen to be the child of a celebrity whose stepmother acted as your father’s guardian and limited or prevented you from visiting your parent during the end of his life and while he was suffering from dementia. The connection came to me the other day in the form of a Google alert.  It cited to a recent article about Casey Kasem’s daughter Kerri, who had a dispute with Kasem’s wife about his care while suffering from Lewy body dementia as well as the disposition of his last remains.  Glen Campbell’s children also had difficulties with their stepmother and their effort resulted in a Tennessee law that will “protect elderly.”  This LA Times article is about Kerri Kasem teaming up with Catherine Falk to advocate for more restrictions on a guardian’s authority which would allow more family members and others the right to visit a person under a guardianship.

In coming posts, I will explore topics including:

  • The importance of making your fiduciary/care wishes known If you are part of a dysfunctional family;
  • Who and what are fiduciaries in the elder law and probate context and why have they become so controversial?
  • What are unlimited guardianships, limited guardianships and “other protective arrangements;”

As well as other topics that arise in this context.  So please stay tuned!

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

Are There Alternatives to Guardianship for an Elder with Dementia?

Abacus of Glass Beads

I’m taking a look at the alternatives to unrestricted or plenary guardianship as a result of reading my latest issue of the ABA’s Bifocal magazine, in which the ABA’s House of Delegates adopted Resolution 113, urging states and other legislatures to amend guardianship statutes to consider less restrictive alternative to unrestricted or plenary guardianships of incapacitated adults and to require consideration of putting into place decision making supports that would allow a person the right to supported decision making as an alternative to (or reason for termination of) guardianship of an adult. I found the topic thought-provoking, particularly in light of a recently approved uniform law which contains many references to supported decision making.

In Colorado, an Incapacitated adult is defined our Probate Code at C.R.S. §15-14-102(5) as one

who is unable to effectively receive or evaluate information or both or make or communicate decisions to such an extent that the individual lacks the ability to satisfy essential requirements for physical health, safety, or self-care, even with appropriate and reasonably available technological assistance.

The definition comes from the Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act, or CUGPPA in Colorado.  Below I’ll take a brief look at a continuum of less restrictive alternatives to implement in the making of decisions for persons who may be or become incapacitated (but not necessarily determined to be such by a probate court in protective proceedings).

First, I’ll note that each of these aspects of functional capacity and incapacity implicate a person’s rights to self-determination.  Self-determination is a broad topic. The principle of self-determination is prominently enshrined in Article I of the Charter of the United Nations.  It remains a concern under international law due to the fact that there are peoples who are not necessarily represented by the nation in which they find themselves.  For an adult who suffers from a progressive condition or disease process that results in cognitive impairment, there really isn’t such a stretch here to say that a person with dementia is at risk of being “colonized” or have their rights self-determination effectively erased by a legal determination of incapacity.  Here I’m talking about self-determination in the medical, and personal preferences context (concerning levels of care or autonomy, as well as choice of the setting in which one lives). The UN Convention of the Rights of Persons With Disabilities (CRPD), also speaks about supported decision making and you can read more about it here.

The medical or health care POA

I’m focusing on the medical POA here because Colorado’s protective proceeding for a person’s property is known as a conservatorship.  A conservatorship is often not necessary if a person has made effective POA naming an agent and the relationship is working and not otherwise under threat from an interloper.  But. . .  keep in mind that sometimes a non-agent family member or friend can take advantage of a person more easily if there is no court-imposed protection of the person’s property. Ah, there’s that ugly head of patriarchal protection (in the form of parens patriae, the power of the state to act as guardian for those who are unable to protect or care for themselves) again!

Bottom line is that, when people (sometimes known as “patients”) make their wishes known in advance to family members or others and empower another to decide for them as the person’s agent in a MDPOA , that empowerment alone can often lead to better outcomes.  But the fact remains that many of us choose not to choose to name an agent. So what’s next? In Colorado there are also proxy decision makers, which we might consider as “de facto” decision makers under applicable Colorado law.  So, that brings us to the next item. . .

Supported decision making – an intermediate ground . . .  or no man’s land?

This item is specifically included in the newly minted 2017 version of the Uniform Law Commission’s UGPPA, er UGCPAA (Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship and Other Protective Arrangements Act) at §101(13) where it is listed as one of the “less restrictive alternatives” to guardianship.   In the proposed UGCOPAA, supported decision making means “assistance from one or more persons of an individual’s choosing” (§102(13)); and is added to the end of the above stated definition of incapacity – to read “unable to effectively receive and evaluate information or make or communicate decisions, even with appropriate supportive services, technological assistance, or supported decision making” (§301(a)(1)(A)); is an appropriate consideration for a court visitor to include in the report (§304(d)(2)); for inclusion in the court’s order appointing a guardian (§310(a)(1)); as one of the rights retained by an otherwise incapacitated adult, to “be involved in health care decision making to the extent reasonably feasible. . .  (§311(a)(3)); and in other examples perhaps appropriate for a later blog post. . . .

What are some standards for supported decision making, which is related to “person centered” planning (now part of the Medicare rules, incidentally)?

This alternative sounds all well and good Barb, but what about those elders with dementia whose cognitive impairments are likely to worsen?  Is it realistic to devise a plan for this supported decision making?  After all, those folks are arguably in a situation different from developmentally disabled adults who may can live independently and working in the community, so long as there are community supports.  But I think this is a less restrictive alternative that is seriously underutilized due to the simple fact that people aren’t used to the idea and it is challenging to identify what it might entail and look like in an alternative to probate court protective proceedings or as part of a court’s order granting a limited or restricted guardianship.

Limited guardianship

This one is pretty self-explanatory.  Only certain identified matters are under the authority of a court-appointed guardian and the rest of the rights are reserved to or preserved in the “ward.”  The tricky part with this is an important detail – scarce judicial resources.  Most courts are not anxious to re-examine how supported decision making or a limited guardianship is working and re-tool it as needed.  Most courts have a difficult enough time simply monitoring those guardians!

Plenary or unrestricted guardianship

This is the norm in this country, regardless of lip service in statutes or case law concerning less restrictive alternatives.  But if we are to truly attempt to accomplish guardianship reform, we (courts, elder law attorneys, service providers and other resources) must work together to fashion a viable alternative to what has become the quick and dirty, default request in a guardianship proceeding involving an elder with dementia who may be in the future or already is “incapacitated.”  Stay tuned for more on this topic in the future.

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Capacity, Incapacity and Vulnerability

Old boats on the Isle of Mull

This is the last post (for now at least) on the topic of capacity and incapacity. In my field of practice, I must be comfortable with making assessments of capacity concerning potential clients and I must also be familiar with the panoply of assessment tools used by the medical establishment (and psychologists who perform neuropsychological evaluations of capacity).

Capacity and incapacity are legal constructs, but they often arise within a medical context and are typically established (in the Colorado probate code as a requirement for a physician’s letter to support a petition for guardianship) with reference to medical evidence relating to a person’s cognitive capacities or mental status.  Interestingly, issues of medical capacity, or what is commonly referred to as “decisional capacity,” is something in which the court system is rarely involved.  So this relationship between legal and medical capacity is not much of a two way street!

In this post I’m looking at where these two notions of capacity and incapacity can meet.  Sometimes we hear that an elder is not capable of doing something any longer – for physical, cognitive, psychological or emotional reasons, and we often fail to consider the intersections of these parts of each of us as people.  We must depend on the integration of those capacities for our continued functioning.  Sometimes it can be very difficult to determine whether a difficulty is short lived or temporary or whether it is a harbinger of greater difficulties which lie ahead.  We each face these challenges alone, but we must rely on others in this stage of our lives, just as we have in earlier, higher functioning stages of our lives – but most of us  struggle mightily with our vulnerability.  The NIH website has a list of resources available for dementia caregivers available here.

There is an intersection between disability law and elder law in the approach to how we facilitate the assisted decision-making on behalf of another as well as the living arrangements for an incapacitated adult.  This is the term  ”least restrictive means” or also “least restrictive environment.”   The former term is distinguished from regulatory and constitutional law, in the probate incapacity context it is the language of the preference for limited guardianship over unlimited or plenary guardianship.  For the latter, we see the term in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which refers to inclusion and mainstreaming, which are of obvious relevance and value to elders who are losing or have lost capacity (ies).

The parallels between the rights of the disabled and the rights of incapacitated elders are numerous.  A large number of elder law attorneys practice in both fields of law because there are so many similarities.  Here’s a link to the Guardianship Alliance of Colorado’s website, which has great resources relating to protecting adults with disabilities.

This determination of incapacity sounds like a one-way street from which there is no turning back, but that is not the whole story.  I came across an interesting article by law professor Nina Kohn and Catheryn Ross about how a person previously stripped of “legal personhood” can regain their legal status.  You can read “Lawyers for Legal Ghosts: The Legality and Ethics of Representing Persons Subject to Guardianshiphere.  The introduction recounts the story of Jenny Hatch, a young woman with Down’s syndrome who was a ward of the state and who successfully challenged not only the terms and conditions of her guardianship, but also her right to make decisions for herself.

Elders in Colorado are part of a “protected class” of persons in our elder abuse statute.  Some of my colleagues take offense at the reference to age because they are close to that age (70) and still don’t want to think of themselves as “old” or in need of protection.   I suspect they don’t consider themselves “old” because they don’t have enough youngsters in close proximity. . . .

What does incapacity mean for a person once a probate court has determined the person incapacitated?

Incapacity determinations by probate courts generally strip a previously capacitated adult of nearly all of their civil rights.  In Colorado, wards (what a person who is named as Respondent in a guardianship petition is called after the court determines the person is incapacitated and in need of a guardian) can still exercise their right to vote.  So once a persons is stripped of those civil rights, a ward essentially ceases to exist in many ways or is legally dead.  This is one aspect of vulnerability.

If you find this patently offensive, please consider the historical common law rules of marriage and property which were “imported” into North America by the colonists.  Hey, didn’t we recently celebrate our independence on the Fourth of July a month ago?! These “coverture laws” basically reduced the legal status of an unmarried adult (otherwise capacitated) woman from an adult to the legal status of an infant once she was married.  These coverture laws pertained to a married woman’s legal rights to own property, to sign contracts, make a will and many other useful matters.  A married woman was otherwise legally incapacitated, but she could seek relief from a court of equity.  Connecticut was one of the first states to establish the property rights of married women.  Back in those early days, the courts of law were separate from the courts of equity, the latter were often referred to as chancery courts.  Those courts were merged with courts of law in many court systems but still exist as separate courts in states like Delaware.  In Colorado’s system of “combined courts” a court sitting in probate is both a court of law (employing the statutory probate code as well as case law) and a court of equity.  Equity is specifically referred to in our probate code, but the two concepts are still legally distinguished from each other because they are different sources of law and the remedies it affords parties.

A ward can regain his or her legal status of personhood – but it can be daunting.  In Colorado, there is a special form for that.   A psychologist I know recently contacted me about getting this form and providing a supporting letter for their client – here is the form from the state judicial website JDF 852.  If imposition of a guardianship over a ward is legal death, then termination of the guardianship based on a restoration (or re-evaluation) of capacity is akin to resurrection.  I won’t go into the gnarly details about the attorney’s ethical rules of representing wards seeking termination of their guardianships, but the Kohn article above is an excellent overview of how attorneys can overcome some of the challenges inherent in our ethical rules to assist those persons in getting their legal personhood or at least some of their rights restored.  Attorneys need to assist these wards to protect fundamental rights.

That’s all for now….

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

Capacity and Incapacity Considered

Swirling

As a growing portion of our population continues to age, we are more frequently forced to confront the question of capacity.

What is capacity and why should we care? 

As we continue to enjoy unprecedented longevity, we face greater likelihood of incapacity in our future.  Sometimes this incapacity is short-lived or temporary but for many of us, particularly for elders, it can become an issue that plays out over time and can result in a permanent incapacity.  There are very few “bright lines” to define what is capacity and what constitutes incapacity generally, but there are many useful contextual and functional definitions of capacity to assist us in this effort.

I believe that the more we can learn about how these capacities and incapacities present themselves in the context of our daily lives, the better equipped we can become to help detect and prevent elder exploitation and abuse.  This post is about three particular types of capacity along the capacity continuum.  I use the term “continuum” because it is easy for many of us to think (or rather, wish to believe) that this capacity question is relatively straightforward.  It is not!  Like so many other aspects of human doing and human being, it can get quite complicated.

I’ll look at three familiar types of capacity here to put the question in context.

  1. Capacity to Make Medical Decisions

These medical Informed consent issues can include a range of capacities relating to what a patient is being asked to do – there is a range from the “mundane” question of whether the patient give informed consent to medical treatment or to decline such treatment; if the patient wishes to name a health care agent to make decisions for them in the event of their incapacity; and what about the capacity to make end-of-life wishes known with a living will?  Here the functional elements of these capacities can be broken down into four basic parts:

(a) To express a choice: The standard of expressing a choice refers to patients who are seen to lack capacity because they cannot communicate a treatment choice, or vacillate to such an extent in their choice that it is seen to reflect a decisional impairment;

(b) To exhibit understanding: The standard of understanding refers to the ability to comprehend diagnostic and treatment related information and has been recognized in many states as fundamental to capacity.

(c) To appreciate the implications of a particular choice or course of treatment. This aspect capacity has been described as the ability to relate treatment information to one’s personal situation. The standard of appreciation can reflect the patient’s ability to anticipate or infer the possible benefits of treatment, as well as to accept or believe a diagnosis.

(d) To rationally process information. This reasoning aspect of capacity involves the ability to recognize and offer rational explanations or to process information in a logically or rationally consistent manner.

Each of these aspects of medical capacity are interwoven into the ongoing conversation of one’s medical treatment and are of course highly subjective in many ways due to the individual patient’s own preferences or style of communication.

  1. Capacity to Drive an Automobile

This one is big for us Americans who don’t have so many public transportation options! The ability to drive is often one of the last things to go because it can in some ways restrict an elder’s ability to go places on their own schedule.  The AARP has an online defensive driving course and AAA has resources for getting evaluations of one’s driving skills as well as clinical assessments, but the “official” Colorado program is the Drive Smart program – click here for more information about it.  Under Colorado law, doctors (and optometrists) can provide medical opinions to the DMV concerning a patient’s medical condition and the patient’s physical or mental ability to safely operate a vehicle.  For more information about when an examination is required, here’s a link to a power point about it from the Colorado Coalition for Elder Rights and Abuse Prevention.

  1. Capacity to Make a Will

As an estate planning and elder law attorney, I meet with prospective clients and must make capacity determinations as a matter of course.  The ABA has a handy guide for lawyers and psychologists concerning assessment of a person’s capacity.  It is available here.  In order for an attorney to represent a client, an attorney must first establish that the potential client has the capacity to hire the attorney as well as direct the activities of the attorney.  We have a special rule of professional conduct which applies to clients with diminished capacity.

Historically, this testamentary capacity is at the lowest level along the capacity continuum.  In Colorado, the law is a bit less clear since the Breeden case, but  many states still recognize testamentary capacity as a separate and special category.  The Colorado probate code allows for a protected person (a person under a conservatorship) to make a will through the conservator. See Colo. Rev. Stat. §15-14-411.

One of the aspects of this low level of capacity required to exercise our testamentary freedom is that a will can be subject to challenge under some circumstances.  The person’s ability to make a will, or their testamentary capacity, can be the subject of a lawsuit known as a will contest.  Challenges to testamentary capacity often revolve around “undue influence,” in which a person challenges the will (and sometimes nontestamentary transfers as in the recent Colorado Appeals Court decision in Estate of Owens v. Dominguez).  Undue influence depends on many situational factors but generally can require a showing by the one challenging the will that: a person standing to benefit from the new will was in a confidential relationship with the testator (person making the will); that the person received a substantial benefit; from the testator who was suffering some mental, social or psychological impairment which compromised the testator’s mental capacity or independent thinking.

To conclude this post, if we think of capacity not just as a concept but as grounded in a particular context – as illustrated by the examination of capacity to perform a particular task, we can go much further in our examination of how much capacity is required and whether the requisite capacity is lacking.  From this contextual basis, we can then take a look at what type of assistance to “facilitate capacity” is appropriate and what kind of “assistance” is actually interference indicative of improper influence, exploitation or abuse.  I’ll write more on this topic this summer.

© Barbara E. Cashman 2017   www.DenverElderLaw.org

 

World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, June 15, 2017

Face on the Rock of Cashel

This isn’t my first post about World Elder Abuse Awareness Day or WEAAD for short. It’s an annual post for me on this day – last year I looked at the “international” part of WEAAD, as well as the national (federal) focus.  This year I will focus on a local aspect – as in Colorado law that can be used to stop an abuser straightaway.

First let’s revisit the basics of what can constitute elder abuse – keeping in mind that each state has its own set of laws addressing this matter, as does the federal government.  This lack of a common definition is part of the challenge in reporting elder abuse and identifying the numbers of elders involved.  But I think the biggest challenge remains in recognizing that elder abuse is a problem that affects our society, not just individuals taken advantage of by strangers or harmed by their loved ones because they are perceived as old, of little value to society, or as an impediment to an heir’s inheritance…

While there is an unfortunate variety of types of elder abuse – elder abuse generally includes:

Mistreatment – this is the preferred term for the American Society of Aging, which is offering a course on mistreatment as comprising abuse and neglect;

Abuse of a financial nature/exploitation – this includes the unauthorized or illegal use of or access to an elder’s financial resources that covers a range of activities such as theft, undue influence, deception or fraud, misrepresentation or coercion;

Abuse of physical nature – this includes violence of a physical nature, including slapping, hitting, restraining or confining an elder, overmedicating or giving improper medication;

Abuse of sexual nature – includes a caregiver forcing an elder to watch or participate in sexual acts;

Abuse of psychological or emotional nature – can be very subtle when employed by a manipulative or cunning family member or care provider;

Neglect of an elder can occur when a caregiver fails to actively or passively fulfill the role of caregiver (paid attendant or unpaid family member) or when an elder self-neglects.

The Adult Protection Services – APS for short – is part of the Colorado Department of Human Services and they have broken their page into four basic categories: caretaker neglect; exploitation; physical or sexual abuse; and self-neglect.  But this offers a very broad brush approach of what to report!

There are other options available in addition to simply reporting suspected mistreatment, abuse or neglect.  One of these involves getting immediate and direct protection against an abuser by means of obtaining a civil protection order.  A civil protection order proceeding is in county court and is available to persons who elders (and at risk adults, those who have developmental disabilities or some other cognitive impairment) who are victims of abuse to prevent further contact by the alleged perpetrator of the abuse.  Read more about the instructions and forms available on the Colorado State judicial website here.

The JDF 402 form for a complaint or motion for civil protection order specifically lists “abuse of the elderly or at-risk adult,” and cites Colo. Rev. Stat. §26-3.1-101(1) and (7).  That latter section of the statute, which is the definitional portion of the “protective services for at-risk adults,” provides

(7) “Mistreatment” means:

                (a) Abuse;

                (b) Caretaker neglect;

                (c) Exploitation;

                (d) An act or omission that threatens the health, safety, or welfare of an at-risk adult; or

                (e) An act or omission that exposes an at-risk adult to a situation or condition that poses an imminent risk of bodily injury to the at-risk adult.

You can see that there is astatutory provision for mistreatment that comprises abuse in our state.  The term is broad and necessarily so.  Remember that the statistics used by the National Council on Aging indicate that elders who have suffered abuse have a 300% higher risk of death as compared to those who have not been mistreated.

The take-away for this post is that there is an immediately available remedy to stop the mistreatment of elders in the form of a civil protection order.  The county courts have the forms available and magistrates or judicial officers to review the complaints or motions for such relief against an abuser respond quickly.

For elders who are suffering mistreatment at the hands of an abuser, a civil protection order can prevent further harm and help to safeguard the elder’s health.  I believe that raising awareness of available remedies to stop further abuse of elders is an important step toward realizing the goals of WEAAD.

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Dementia, Fear and Aid in Dying

Sunset on an Artificial Lake

 

For this first post of June, I am revisiting a topic that has been discussed in previous posts: Alzheimer’s (or other forms of dementia) and the fear of aging.  Combining that volatile mix with the question of assisted dying presents a long list of novel questions.  The topic  was sparked by a phone call I received from someone residing in another state but who was looking for information about Colorado’s End of Life Options Act.  The specific query concerned the caller’s desire to explore options to end a spouse’s suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.  My response was fairly straightforward and I think the caller was a bit surprised by my candor.  I explained that under the Colorado law a patient or “qualified individual” was required to, among other things, have the capacity to give informed consent to the  receipt of the aid-in-dying medication to end the qualified person’s life.  See Colo. Rev. Stat. § 25-48-102(13) defining “qualified individual” and § 106(e) which concerns more details of the individual’s “informed decision.”

The caller was surprised when I explained that the only legislature which has to date considered expanding the aid-in-dying law to dementia patients was Oregon.  The Oregon Senate Bill 893 would allow for those persons otherwise qualified for administering receiving life-ending medications under Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, except that the  patient who ceases to have capacity to give informed consent can still be given life ending medication if there is a specific advance medical directive which expressly authorizes an agent under a medical power of attorney to collect and administer the life-ending medication if the incapacitated person previously received a prescription for such medication.

Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia (here I will collectively refer to them as AD) are typically the most feared diseases of post-modern westerners who privilege their rationality (remember the Cartesian mantra “I think therefore I am”) and perceived autonomy over all else.  Further, our techno-medical way of examining aging, of parsing out different functions of one’s life ascribed to different body parts, leads us to believe that whatever form of cognitive impairment – age related or otherwise – might just be a part in need of fixing or a disease waiting to be cured. This type of reductionist thinking refuses to look outside its own narrow pigeon hole. In the meantime, those of us who do not perish will age in our own unique ways and many of us will struggle with its challenges.

Whose fear is it – and whose suffering?

What do we make of this fear of AD and fear of a person’s – er – a personality’s – disintegration?  I think in several important ways it is the same fear as the terror of dying, just a bit more latent and prolonged, and therefore more menacing than death for some people.  I’ll quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (III.i. 102-105) here, the conversation between Cassius and Brutus:

Cassius: Why he that cuts off twenty years of life

Cuts off so many years of fearing death.

Brutus: Grant that, and then death is a benefit:

So are we Caesar’s friends that have abridged

His time of fearing death.

There are many ways to respond to one’s own AD and to that of a loved one’s.  One way is to project our own fears onto the other person, who appears a shadow of the former self or as completely incapacitated.   But there is no standard response, even though some “conventional wisdom” (I use the term tongue in cheek here) might be welcomed by many who find the disease and its process most bewildering.  A slight detour here . . .

Bewilder is defined in the Merriam Webster online dictionary as (transitive verb):

1:  to cause to lose one’s bearings (see bearing 6c) bewildered by the city’s maze of roads;

2:  to perplex or confuse especially by a complexity, variety, or multitude of objects or considerations His decision bewildered her. utterly bewildered by the instructions.

And what if we break down that verb into a command – be wilder, wild from the noun wild) to be:

1: A natural state or uncultivated or uninhabited region.

2: (the wilds) A remote uninhabited or sparsely inhabited area.

Now back to my topic. . .

My concern is that there are many faces of Alzheimer’s Disease just as there are many aspects to an individual’s response to a loved one affected by AD.  I am thinking particularly of a recent article published in Kaiser Health News, entitled “How to Help Alzheimer’s Patients Enjoy Life, Not Just ‘Fade Away,’” and you can read that here.  The fact remains that each person is affected by AD is his or her own way and the “preoccupation with the cerebral pathology” (which the psychiatrist Dr. David Rothschild criticized in his 1936 paper on the psychodynamic model of senile dementia) often serves to fan the flames of fear and anxiety over our collective preoccupation with the losses of aging.  There are many other paths to choose here – not just the one of least resistance which is fear based.

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org