When illness strikes, or an accident occurs, a loved one may be left without the ability to think for himself or herself. The ability to think for yourself as a rational adult is called capacity (also called competence). When you lose this ability, you are considered incapacitated (or incompetent). If this has occurred to a loved one, there are certain things that you can do to protect his or her assets as well as his or her rights as a patient.
Your Loved One Is Incapacitated And He or She:
You Can Now:
Signed a Medical Durable Power of Attorney naming you as agent
Act as health care agent and make important medical decisions on his or her behalf.
Signed a Durable Power of Attorney naming you as agent
Act as financial agent and make important business decisions on his or her behalf.
Has you listed on a joint or convenience account
Remove assets from that account to help pay his or her bills.
Has assets in a trust
Seek the help of the person who runs the trust (called the "trustee") to get assets for your loved one's benefit.
Has not done any of the above
Do very little. If you are concerned with medical decisions, the hospital may listen to you if you can prove you are the "next of kin." If you are concerned with financial matters, you may need a lawyer.
There may still be time to get help. Although your loved one may appear to you as incapacitated, he or she may still have enough mental ability to understand and sign certain documents legally. Speak to a lawyer who specializes in this area.
Being an Agent for an Incapacitated Loved One
Use Your Powers as Agent
If you are the financial agent for your loved one's affairs, you have wide-ranging powers. You should act to protect his or her rights in the following ways:
Not all banks or other parties will recognize a Durable Power of Attorney. If they do not, you may need to contact a lawyer. If you are the health care agent, notify the doctors and hospital immediately and present them with these documents. If they refuse to accept them, you may also need to talk to a lawyer.
Going to Court to Help Your Loved One
If you did not take the right steps in advance, you may be forced to turn to the courts for help. If you are seeking the right to protect the assets of your loved one, you will need to be appointed conservator. If you are seeking to be placed in charge of the physical welfare of your loved one, you will need to be appointed guardian (these terms may be slightly different in your state).
To become a guardian or conservator usually requires a lawyer, takes a long time, and is expensive. The powers that a conservator has are usually limited by the courts and may not be enough to completely protect the financial welfare of your loved one; the court also requires you to fill out detailed accounting reports.
Going to court is a drastic step and should be taken only as a last resort. When the court appoints a guardian or conservator, it becomes public knowledge. This may embarrass the family. It is also difficult to remove the court's involvement if your loved one recovers. Before taking this step, speak to a lawyer, and then consider getting a second legal opinion.
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