xray-doctor

One of the six main parts of an estate plan that every adult Iowan should have is a health care power of attorney (POA). This legal instrument allows you to designate the person that you want to make health care decisions for you in the chance that you become incapacitated and unable to make such decisions for yourself.

Who can be my Health Care POA Representative?

The person you pick is your agent/representative for purposes of health care decision-making and should be (a) a competent legal adult; (b) someone you trust would make health care decisions that align with your best interests; and (c) someone who agrees to the role. Some people elect to have the same person be their designated proxy for both the health care and financial powers of attorney. Other folks choose two different individuals for these roles.

It is highly advised to name an alternate representative in case the person you appoint becomes unable or unwilling to act on your behalf.

The law does not allow your health care designated agent to be a health care professional providing health care to you on the date you sign the document. It also cannot be any employee of the doctor, nurse, or any hospital or health care facility providing care to you. The only exception is if that employee is a close relative.

What types of Health Care Decisions does a POA Cover?

A health care power of attorney can govern any kind of decision that is related to your health that you allow. You could, for example, limit your representative to certain types of decisions. Or, you could allow your representative to make decisions for any type of health care choice/issue that may arise. This includes decisions to give, withhold, or withdraw informed consent to any medical and surgical treatments. Other decisions could relate to psychiatric treatment, nursing care, hospitalization, treatment in a nursing home, home health care, and organ donation.

pills coming out of pill bottle

When Would I use a Health Care POA?

A health care POA comes into play only when, in the certified and recorded opinion of your attending physician, you are unable to make health care decisions for yourself. Your named agent is then able to make decisions regarding your care, receive access to records, communicate with health care providers, and other important actions that would otherwise be off limits.

What is a Living Will?

The name of this document is bit of a misnomer. Sometimes referred to as an advanced directive, a living will is best thought of as a written declaration that informs health care providers of your desire to NOT have life-sustaining treatment continue if you are diagnosed as terminally ill or injured, are unable to communicate your choices regarding your treatment, and such treatment would simply prolong the inevitable and imminent process of dying. You may consider a living will an important part of the whole that is your health care power of attorney document

Under Iowa’s Living Will Law, a living will does not permit withholding or withdrawing food or water unless they are provided intravenously or by a feeding tube. Additionally, medication or medical procedures necessary to provide comfort or to ease pain are not considered life sustaining, and may not be withheld.

Because of the sensitive nature of the living will, before signing the document make certain the provisions included align with your philosophical and/or religious beliefs and wishes.

Important Definitions

Life-sustaining treatment” is defined as the use of medical machinery such as heart-lung machines, ventilators, tube feeding, and other medical techniques that may sustain and possibly extend your life, but which won’t, by themselves, cure your condition.

Terminal condition,” under Iowa law, is defined as an incurable or irreversible condition that without life sustaining procedures, results in death within a relatively short time or a comatose state from which there can be no recovery, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty.

In all states the determination as to whether you are in such a medical condition is determined by qualified medical professionals—typically your attending physician and at least one other medical doctor who has examined or reviewed your medical situation. The decision must be recorded in your medical records.

dr with stehoscope

How do I Make a Living Will?

This is one of the documents I include in the estate planning packages for my clients, if they so elect to have one. The first step, at least when working with GFLF on your estate plan, is filling out my Estate Plan Questionnaire, which is where you can choose “yes” or “no” for creating a living will.

In terms of qualifications, you must be a competent, legal adult who is age 18 or older. The declaration can be signed in the presence of two witnesses (who also must be 18 or older and should not be family members if at all possible) or a notary public. Note that health care employees responsible for your care cannot be the witnesses.

Of course, the declaration for a living will must be signed voluntarily and without coercion.

What do I do Once I Sign a Living Will?

The original living will must be given to your doctor in order for it to be acted upon. Therefore your health care designated agent should have access to the original if the time comes when it is need.

Under Iowa law, it is your responsibility (and therefore your health care proxy if you are unable or incapacitated) to provide your attending physician (the doctor who is primarily responsible for your care and treatment) with the declaration. This attending physician might not be your family doctor, but it’s smart to give a copy of the living will to your family doctor to have on file. In addition, the living will’s existence should be made known to members of your family.

What Happens if I Change my Mind About my Living Will?

A living will is revocable at any time. You may revoke the document easily by notifying your attending physician of your intent to do so. This communication of intent will then be recorded by your attending doctor as a part of your medical record. If this is the case I also recommend contacting your estate planning attorney and health care designated agent to communicate your change. Depending on what is written in your health care POA that document may need revisions or additions, which is something your estate planning attorney can facilitate.

surgeons walking down hallway

What About a Living Will Made in Another State?

This is a good question as each state has its own laws related to living wills and such decisions. A living will made in another state will be valid in Iowa to the extent that the declaration aligns with Iowa laws on the matter.

That being said, it’s best to have a current living will declared in the state you reside in and are most likely to receive care in. So, if you signed a living will while living in Colorado and then move to Iowa, it’s best to sign a new living will that is specific to Iowa’s laws. (Plus, moving across state lines is one of those big life changes that mean you should update your entire estate plan to be sure it’s valid under your new home state’s estate, property, and inheritance laws. So, you may as well update your living will while you’re at it!)

What Happens if I don’t Have a Living Will?

Without a living will stating your directives, others will be forced to decide if life-sustaining procedures will be used for you. (Typically this is a situation one does not want to place on their loved ones.) If you have a health care power of attorney, that representative will make the decisions regarding life sustaining treatments and procedures.

If you also don’t have a health care power of attorney in place, Iowa law states that the attending physicians and the first person available from the following list will make such health care decisions for you  in front of a witness:

  • A guardian, if applicable (Note that a court appointed guardian must obtain court approval before making this decision.)
  • Your spouse.
  • Your adult child (or a majority of your adult children who are available).
  • Your parent or parents.
  • Your adult sibling.

Communication is Key

Just like it’s important to discuss your estate planning decisions with your executor and family, it is equally important to discuss your health care and life-sustaining wishes with the person who will be your agent. You may also plainly state directives on your health care power of attorney form such as “I want all available organs to be donated in the event of my death.”

Review and Get Started

Whew. That was a lot of important information in one blog post. Let’s review how the two different but compatible documents of health care power of attorney and a living will:

  • Your health care power of atttorney gives a proxy your designate and trust the authority to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to make them for yourself.
  • The living will is a document specifically directing your physician that certain life-sustaining procedures should be withdrawn or withheld if you are in a terminal condition and unable to decide for yourself.

You can have a health care power of attorney document without having a living will. And, while not advised to not have a health care power of attorney document in place, you could technically have a living will without a health care power of attorney.

If you don’t have health care power of attorney or a living will in place, there’s no time like the present to make your decisions known and recorded well before the unexpected happens. Fill out my easy Estate Plan Questionnaire to get started. If you have any questions about either of these documents, don’t hesitate to contact me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or by phone at 515-371-6077.

Now through Valentine’s Day I’m highlighting how “gifting” an estate plan can show true love and commitment with the #PlanningForLove series. Of course, Valentine’s Day can be about celebrating many different types of love, not just romantic love. There’s adoration for your furry friend, love for your children, respect for yourself…but, it’s Super Bowl Sunday, so let’s focus on the love of the game! 

football estate plan

For two formidable teams (New England Patriots vs. Philadelphia Eagles), it’s the culmination of a season. (And for us, it’s a great excuse to indulge in all the best tailgating snacks.) It’s a grueling seven-month schedule with tons of variables from pre-season training camp to regular season kick-off to post-season play-offs.

Just like all the games leading up to the Super Bowl, a lot can happen throughout a lifetime. So many variables, so many strategies, upsets, and so many potential outcomes.

While it may be difficult to ponder the inevitably of your own timer running out, preparation for what happens after your season ends is indeed necessary.

The Main Players

Estate plan – An estate plan is the whole playbook, generally containing the following documents: your will; healthcare power of attorney; financial power of attorney; disposition of personal property; and final disposition of remains.

Will – A will is a superstar which can accomplish so much for your team. For example, who will quarterback the distribution of your property at the end of the game? You need to make certain the will is well drafted, solid, and can stand up in court. Keep in mind though, important assets such as retirement assets and investment accounts may well contain beneficiary designations that actually trump your will.

Health care power of attorney  & financial power of attorney – Don’t let a sudden disability completely take you out of the game. Have someone strong come off the bench to carry you to your personal goals.

Trust – You have lots of different options with this multi-tool MVP. A trust can help your team in so many different ways and provide you huge advantages in every facet of the game.

Get a Good Playbook!

Thorough planning is the best way to plan for the end of your season, so that you and your family are never caught unprepared. When you are no longer around to coach and care for the rest of your “team,” make sure they are both provided for and are provided training on how to keep pushing forward by settling your affairs. A comprehensive estate plan, written by an experienced estate planner, is the best way to do this.

No ‘I’ in Team

Your loved ones and close friends are all a part of your team; part of being a strong team player is including them on the plays you’re making. Discuss important aspects of your estate plan with the people it involves to avoid any confusion or conflict when it comes times for them to carry out your wishes. For instance, if you have minor children (under age 18) you’re going to want to establish legal guardianship if the worst happens and you’re no longer around to care for them. You’ll want to discuss with your chosen guardians ahead of time to make sure they’re willing and available to carry out the responsibility.

Lineup Adjustments

Pro football coaches switch up who’s starting for the best winning strategy. Similarly, you may well need to make adjustments to your estate plan “lineup” as things inevitably change over the course of your life. Big events like marriage, birth of a child/grandchild, moving to a different state, a large change in financial status, divorce, and other significant changes are good reason to review your designated representatives, beneficiaries, and overall goals.

Charity Factor

Pro football players make bank, but many also make significant contributions to charities they care about. Some NFL players have founded their own charitable foundation, while other focus on a few nonprofits whose missions they care deeply about. For instance, Chris Long, the Eagles defensive end, announced last fall he will donate his entire salary ($1 million) from the season to educational charities. Most players also work together as a team to give back to their communities. The league as a whole also supports building awareness for nonprofits though initiatives like “My Cause, My Cleats.”

Given their high profile sports status, these players also help inspire folks across the country to do the same. (In one great example, these football fans donated to NFL players’ favorite nonprofits!) You too can be a fierce philanthropist, but without actually having to sprint, throw, or sweat! You can include your favorite charities in your estate plan as beneficiaries. Then there are the other charitable giving tools that can be included as a part of your “end game” like charitable gift annuities and the charitable remainder trust.

Winning Score

I cannot predict who will win the Super Bowl today, but I can say without a doubt that you never know when the game is going to change. You never know when you (and/or your team members) are going to need any one of the documents a part of your estate plan. So, you need to have your “playbook” written out ASAP…well, you can wait until after the big game!

The best place to start on your estate plan is with my free, no obligation Estate Plan Questionnaire. You can also shoot me an email or give me a call at 515-371-6077 to discuss your situation (or football).

You’ve probably heard you need to have a financial power of attorney in place, but the whole thing seems a little ambiguous…what does this important document (which is an important part of a complete estate plan) actually mean? Let’s cover the basics.

What is a financial power of attorney?

A financial power of attorney (“POA”) is a legal document that designates someone to handle your financial decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so while living, due to incapacitation. (Note that upon death, your financial power of attorney terminates and your will and/or trust kick in to guide decision making in your absence.)

There are two main types of financial power of attorney I offer my clients.

  • Immediate power—effective from the moment you sign it, without any medical certification; while immediate, you do not lose control of your affairs. (This is typically what I recommend.)
  • Springing power—becomes effective only upon medical certification that you are unable to carry on your legal and financial affairs.

What happens if I don’t have a financial POA?

If you don’t have a financial POA, and you were to become incapacitated, any financial decisions would need to be made by a court-appointed conservator. Under a court’s direction, the conservator would handle your financial matters. It’s a quite expensive and time consuming process, especially compared with the relative simplicity of executing a financial POA. Also, needless to say, most people would elect to trust their important financial decisions to a person they love and trust, over someone the court appoints.

After I die, can my agent continue to operate under my financial POA?

A common misperception is that your agent will be able to use this power after your death. Instead, at your death, any of the agent’s powers will be automatically revoked. The representative appointed through the probate process will carry out your estate plan.

Who should I choose to serve as my “attorney-in-fact?”

two people talking on the beach

The agent (or attorney-in-fact) you choose will be managing your finances, so it is critically important to choose someone trustworthy; someone who will not abuse or exploit this power; someone who will listen to your wishes, goals, and objectives, as included in the document or otherwise communicated; and someone who will look out for your best interests.

You also have the option of designating a successor agent who can take over if the original agent is unable or unwilling to serve. This is highly recommended.

Who should receive a copy of my financial POA?

The person named as agent and any person named as a successor agent should receive a copy. It may also be wise to share a copy with your financial institution(s), such as your bank/credit union, as well as with your financial advisor and/or accountant.

Can I revoke my financial POA?

Yes, you may revoke the financial POA at any time. You can also amend the financial POA (change it, revise it, etc.) at any time.

Are there other estate planning documents I need?

Yes, definitely! There are six “must have” estate planning documents. The financial power of attorney is one of these documents that create a comprehensive estate plan.

Who needs a financial power of attorney?

I’m a staunch believer that every adult Iowan needs an estate plan—including young professionalsnewlyweds, the non-wealthy, and especially people with minor children—and, therefore a financial power of attorney. A financial power of attorney can even be incredibly important (but often overlooked) for college students.


Do you have a financial POA? How about a full estate plan in place? Why or why not? I’d love to hear from you. Email me at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or call (515-371-6077).

I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.– Rudyard Kipling

I’ll use all six “serving men”—what, why, when, how, where, and who, albeit sometimes in slightly different order—to explain three broad topics: (1) estate planning; (2) trusts; and (3) business succession planning. If you’re unsure of any of the three topics listed, this is the blog post for you.

man taking notes in notebook

WHAT is an Estate Plan, Anyway?

What do we talk about when we talk about estate planning? There are six documents that should be part of everyone’s estate plan. Additionally, you should also keep these six documents updated and current. It’s also important you take note of assets with beneficiary designations (such as those on IRAs and bank accounts).

WHO Needs an Estate Plan? Everyone!

Everyone needs an estate plan. If you’re young, healthy, unmarried, have no children, and have no significant or unusual assets, perhaps you could talk me into the idea that you don’t entirely need an estate plan. Even in such exceedingly rare cases, I strongly recommend making sure your beneficiary designations are completed and up-to-date.

For example, beneficiary designations can be found on your checking and savings accounts and on your retirement benefit plan. But, if you’re married, and/or have kids, and/or have significant or unusual assets, and/or own part or all of a business, you most definitely need an estate plan.

WHY Do You Need an Estate Plan?

Estate planning is not exactly material for scintillating conversation. In fact, I’d bet most of us like to avoid this topic because it can be confusing, and requires lots of decision-making. And, yes, it forces one to think about the mortality of loved ones and the self. Estate planning, after all, is a roadmap about what you want to happen after you move on from this life. While it may not be a fun topic, it is indeed a necessary one. If you die without an estate plan, there are several negative consequences.

Without an estate plan, you cannot choose who receives your estate assets.

If you die without a will, you leave the decision of who will receive your property, in what amount, and when up to the Iowa legislature and/or Iowa courts. With this situation there is always the very real possibility that the distribution of your estate will be greatly different than if you had chosen it through an estate plan.

Without an estate plan, you cannot choose a guardian for your minor children.

If you die without an estate plan, Iowa courts will choose guardians for your children. One of the most important aspects of a will is that it allows you to designate who will be the guardian for your children. This can ensure that your children are cared for by the person that you want, not who the court chooses for you.

Without an estate plan, Iowa courts will choose your estate’s executor.

If you die without an estate plan, the probate court is forced to name an executor. The executor of your estate handles tasks like paying your creditors and distributing the rest of your assets to your heirs. If the probate court has to pick who will be your estate’s executor, there is always a chance that you would not have approved of that person if you had been alive. If you have an estate plan, your will names a trusted executor who will carry out all of your final wishes, pay your bills, and distribute your assets as you intended.

Without an estate plan, you can’t help your favorite nonprofits.

If you die without an estate plan, all your assets— house, savings, retirement plans, and so on—will pass to your heirs at law as specified under Iowa’s statutes. If you have an estate plan, you can include gifts to your favorite nonprofits and see that they are helped for many years to come.

HOW Do You Structure Your Estate Plan?

light bulb on post-it note

Again, there are six basic documents that should be part of everyone’s estate plan:

  1. Estate Planning Questionnaire
  2. Last will and testament
  3. Power of attorney for health care
  4. Power of attorney for finance
  5. Disposition of personal property
  6. Disposition of final remains

We’ll go through each document briefly, so you have a sense of what each entails.

Estate Planning Questionnaire

Estate planning involves facing heavy questions, and depending on the amount of assets and beneficiaries you have, may take quite a bit of time and thought. I recommend clients (and even those who aren’t my clients) complete an Estate Plan Questionnaire. An Estate Plan Questionnaire is a simple way to get all of your information in one place, and makes it easier for your attorney to build your estate plan.

As with any project, it helps “to begin with the end in mind.” A questionnaire can help get you there.

hand holding orb

Last Will and Testament

Now let’s discuss your last will and testament. In sum, you’ll be answering three major questions:

Q1. Who do you want to have your stuff?

This includes both tangible and intangible things. An example of a tangible item would be your coin collection. An example of an intangible asset would be stocks.

Q2. Who do you want to be in charge of carrying out your wishes as expressed in the will?

The “executor” is the person who will be responsible for making sure the will is carried out as written.

Q.3. If you have kids under age 18: who do you want to take care of your minor children?

You’ll want to designate a legal guardian(s) who will take care of your minor children until they are adults.

Power of Attorney for Health Care

A power of attorney (POA) for health care designates someone to handle your healthcare decisions for you if you become unable to make those decisions for yourself. A healthcare POA can govern any kind of decision that is related to your health that you want to address. A healthcare POA may include decisions related to organ donation, hospitalization, treatment in a nursing home, home health care, psychiatric treatment, and more.

For example, if you don’t want to be kept alive with machines, you can make this clear in your POA for healthcare. But, keep in mind your POA for health care isn’t just about end-of-life decisions, again, it can cover any medical situation.

Power of Attorney for Finance

The power of attorney for financial matters is similar to the health care document just discussed, only your designated agent has the power to make decisions and act on your behalf when it comes to your finances. This gives them the authority to pay bills, settle debts, sell property, or anything else that needs to be done if you become incapacitated and unable to do this yourself.

It might be obvious by now, but I’ll state it just in case: choosing an agent for a power of attorney requires that you think long and hard about who would be best suited for the job and who can be trusted.

woman on laptop on patio

Disposition of Personal Property

Now, let’s get to the disposition of the personal property. This is where you get specific about items you want particular people to have. If you’re leaving everything to one or two people, then you may not need to fill this out. But, if you know you want your niece Beth to have a specific piece of jewelry, and your cousin Karl to have that bookshelf he loved, then you’d say so in this document.

Disposition of Final Remains

The disposition of final remains document is where you get to tell your loved ones exactly how you want your body to be treated after you pass away. It can be as general as simply saying “I want to be cremated and scattered in my garden,” or it can be specific and include details of plots you’ve already purchased or arrangements you’ve already made.

Beneficiary Designations

Along with the six basic estate planning documents, don’t forget about your assets with beneficiary designations.

Common accounts with beneficiary designations include savings and checking accounts, life insurance, annuities, 401(k)s, pensions, and IRAs are all transferred via beneficiary designations. These beneficiary designations actually trump your will!

Regarding assets with beneficiary designations, you must make sure that designations are correctly filled out and supplied to appropriate institution. Remember to keep these beneficiary designations updated and current.

WHEN Do You Update Your Estate Plan?

Let’s say you’ve gone to an estate planning lawyer, and these six basic estate planning documents have been drafted and signed. What else? You need to keep these documents updated and current. If you undergo a major life event, you may well want to revisit with your estate planning lawyer, to see if this life event requires changing your estate planning documents.

What do I mean by a major life event? Some common events would include:

  • Selling or buying land
  • Birth or adoption of a child or grandchild
  • Marriage or divorce
  • Illness or disability of your spouse
  • Purchasing a home or other large asset
  • Moving to another state
  • Large increases or decreases in the value of assets, such as investments
  • If you or your spouse receives a large inheritance or gift
  • If any family member, or other heir, dies, becomes ill, or is incapacitated

This is just a short list of life events that should cause you to reconsider your estate plan. There are many others; if you think you might have undergone a major life event, check with your estate planning lawyer.

WHERE Do You Keep Your Estate Plan?

You should store your estate planning documents in a safe place, such as a fireproof safe at home, or a safety-deposit box. Another option in our digital era is storage on the “cloud.” Just make sure the important agents under your estate plan—say, for example, the executor of your will, or power of attorney representative—can access the documents if and when the need arises. For most folks, that’s enough: the six documents, keeping the documents current, and remembering about those assets with beneficiary designations.

Wait a second…what do you mean by “for most folks, that’s enough?” Indeed, for most Iowans what I’ve outlined here is enough. There may be folks who have more that $5 million in assets, or who have complex assets (for example, more than one piece of real estate), or own part or all of a robust business, or otherwise have unusual situations. In such cases, a trust may be helpful. That’s considered more “advanced” estate planning and will mean additional conversations and collaboration on what estate planning tools work best for the situation.

See? That wasn’t so bad!

Whether it’s complicated or simple, it does require some thought and time. But, it’s worth the investment. A proper estate plan can save you and your estate costs and fees, help your family and friends, and provide you peace of mind.

Perhaps most importantly, through proper estate planning you can help your favorite charities in ways large and small.

Do you have an estate plan? Why or why not? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. You can reach me at any time at 515-371-6077 or gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com.

Everyone has unique needs and thus every estate plan needs to be personalized. Online templates for estate plans won’t cover the nuances of your life, wishes, and assets. The best place to start on your personalized estate plan is with my Estate Planning Questionnaire.

sad man

It’s the saddest day of the year. You all know what I am talking about: the last day of National Estate Planning Awareness Week.

Here in Iowa, the weather is appropriate to everyone’s mood. It’s grey and drizzly and overcast and cold. Almost as if the Universe itself was acknowledging the melancholy of ending NEPAW 2017.

woman standing in road in raincoat

But we sure had fun, didn’t we? We took a deep dive into the history of estate planning itself. Estate planning, in some form or another, has been an important aspect of societies in the world for hundreds and hundreds of years. In almost every society folks wanted to pass along their assets to the people they care about and want to provide for.

We talked modern lit, too. Kazuo Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature and so we explored how his novel Never Let Me Go contained lessons for estate planners. After all, our lives are all too short. What should be our legacy?

We were reminded of the importance of Powers of Attorney. In particular, everyone should have a Power of Attorney for Health Care, a legal instrument that allows you to select the person that you want to make health care decisions for you, if and when you become unable to make such decisions for yourself.

Ultimate Estate Planning Checklist

The Gordon Fischer Law Firm Ultimate Estate Planning Checklist makes it easy to visualize your completion rate of the important documents and estate plan-related tasks. It’s an easy to read, handy dandy cheat sheet of items to accomplish to get you from zero to hero in estate planning world.

Yes, we sure had fun. [Sigh…looking out of rain streaked window, thinking]. While we’ll have to wait a whole year until the next National Estate Planning Awareness Week, let’s always choose to be aware of the importance of estate planning regardless of the day. With a quality estate plan crafted by an experienced lawyer, every single day of our lives can be like a day of National Estate Planning Awareness Week!

Here are three things you can do to keep the spirit of National Estate Planning Awareness Week alive regardless of the date on the calendar:

  1. If you don’t yet have an estate plan, get one. NOW. Filling out my Estate Plan Questionnaire is a great and easy way to start the process.
  2. Talk to your family, friends, colleagues, fellow churchgoers, and so on, about your own estate planning experiences. If it was easier and less expensive than you thought it might be, share that info. If having six basic documents, brought you great piece of mind, tell them so.
  3. Subscribe to my free e-newsletter, GoFisch, delivered to your inbox every month. It’s chock full of helpful information about Wills, Trusts, Powers of Attorney for Health Care, Powers of Attorney for Financial Matters, pet trusts, and really every aspect of estate planning.

I’d love to talk with you (even if you’re not as disappointed to see National Estate Planning Awareness Week pass as I am). Contact me by phone or email at any time.

senior citizen guardianship

Recently a friend sent me an article from The New Yorker, “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights.” (While a long read, it’s worthwhile.) The piece focused on the tragic case of a Nevada couple—Rudy and Rennie North—who fell victim to a court appointed guardian who failed (terribly) to put the senior victims’ best interests first and asserted the little known situation where “Guardians can sell the assets and control the lives of senior citizens without their consent—and reap a profit from it.” At first this situation is a bit confusing. How can a couple, with grown adult children, be assigned as wards of a state-appointed conservator/guardian who is then in charge of making health, financial, and social decisions for the individuals?

Given the current and growing population of elderly in the U.S. the issue of court-appointed guardianship it’s an important subject. According to the Census Bureau, “residents age 65 and over grew from 35.0 million in 2000, to 49.2 million in 2016, accounting for 12.4 percent and 15.2 percent of the total population, respectively.” And, between 2000 to 2016, 95.2 percent of all U.S. counties experienced increases in median age.

senior couple at table

What is a Guardian / Conservator?

To be able to protect yourself against such a situation, let’s establish what a guardian and/or conservator actually does and what are the causes for a conservator to be appointed. One person may be both the guardian and conservator and can be combined into a single court action. (Note: these definitions are applicable in the State of Iowa. In some states the words have different definitions and a “guardianship” in Iowa may be considered a “conservatorship” under the verbiage of a different state.)

Iowa Legal Aid offers a clear definition of the two terms:

“In a conservatorship:

  • The court appoints a person (the conservator) to control the property (or estate) of a ward.
  • A conservatorship deals with the person’s financial decisions.

In a guardianship:

  • The court appoints a person (the guardian) to control the person of the ward.
  • A guardianship deals with non-financial decisions such as where the ward lives and what type of medical care the ward gets.”

For simplicity’s sake, for the rest of the article we’ll just say guardian/guardianship, but know that could also include a conservator/conservatorship.

How does a Guardian get Appointed?

A guardian may be appointed if a court finds an individual incapacitated, which can be due to varied conditions like mental disorder, physical or mental disability, chronic abuse of drugs and/or alcohol, or physical illness. Basically if the court is convinced that a person lacks sufficient ability or understanding to communicate or make decisions in their best interest they could appoint a guardian for the continued supervision and care of the individual.

The process is such that a petition is filed in the prospective ward’s state with information regarding the proposed guardian, the guardian and ward’s relationship (if any), and other info on heirs. Any person deemed “competent” can be appointed as a guardian, so that could include an adult child/parent, spouse, or friend. It could also be a professional guardian entirely unrelated to the ward.

two senior citizen women

The legal standing for guardianship immigrated over to the U.S. colonies from England and is based on an English statute that’s survived for over 800 years. The state holds the power of parens patriae, “a duty to act as a parent for those considered too vulnerable to care for themselves.” Because this power is of the states and not federally regulated, there are disparate record keeping standards, sealed court records, and no databases of collective figures at the local, state, nor federal levels.

Potential Dangers of Guardianship

Guardianship in the U.S. straddles a fine line between protection and exploitation.

One of the major tenants of the concept of guardianship is “trust.” And, it’s true that there are great guardians who certainly work in the best interests of their charges. Most people assume the role of a guardian for good reason (like caring for a parent), but there are also substantiated cases where victims (largely senior citizens) were subjected to physical abuse, financial theft, and neglect. In a 2010 report, “Guardianships: Cases of Financial Exploitation, Neglect, and Abuse of Seniors,” the Government Accountability Office identified over 150 reported victims who had suffered a total of $5.4 million in stolen funds.

Guardianship has large potential for issues and consequences given the large quantities of people involved. Currently there over 1.5 million adults who live under the care of a guardian who is either a family member or unrelated professional. These guardians control an immense amount of assets to the tune of $273 billion. It’s also true that in the majority of states there are no qualifications to attain the status of guardian other than taking a course, having not declared bankruptcy recent, and not be convicted felon.

two seniors speaking on sidewalk

The American Bar Association published the statement that “an unknown number of adults languish under guardianship” even if they no longer have the need for someone to make decisions for them (or never did).

Another danger is that while guardianship could be terminated through a court hearing if it can be proved the need no longer exists, the ABA study also asserted the guardianship situation is typically permanent, leaving few ways out for the adults under care. Those who do try to fight against a court-appointed guardian often end up paying excessive amounts of money in attorney and court fees—some even going bankrupt in the process.

Additionally, the aging population of America places increased pressure on court resources which, in turn, can make it difficult for court appointmented guardians to have the optimal high level of oversight necessary. Thus, shady guardians can more easily slip through the cracks and continue to abuse the system and their wards’ assets.

How to Protect Against the Potential

It’s pretty safe to say that no one in their right mind would want a court-appointed guardian (particularly a stranger) to have control over your life. Especially in a way that they could legally:

  • Change your permanent residence to a more restrictive location.
  • Consent to withdraw life-sustain medical procedures.
  • Place restrictions on communications, visit, or interactions with another person.
  • Make decisions contrary to your wishes regarding general life in areas like recreational activities, clothing, and food choices.

As an example of the prospective consequences of these powers is how a guardian placing restrictions on whom their ward can interact with can result in isolating the ward from their family members. According to Elaine Renoire, a director of the National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse, a victims’ rights group, the top complaint she hears about guardians is how they can legally prohibit their wards from seeing or speaking to their loved ones.

senior citizen on bench

The following legal and estate planning tools are proactive measures you can take today to avoid the potential of being subject to court appointed guardianship.

Health Care Power of Attorney

Health care power of attorney is one of the six main documents all Iowans should have as a part of their estate plan. It allows you to choose a designated representative to make medical decisions on your behalf if you are to become incapacitated either temporarily (such as under anesthesia) or permanently. If you cannot express your medical treatment wishes clearly and coherently, your agent could then make such wishes be known on your behalf. The designated agent also retains the right to receive your medical record information that would otherwise be inaccessible as it is protected under HIPAA laws.

Financial Power of Attorney

Similar to the health care power of attorney, financial power of attorney is a legal document that designates someone to handle your financial decisions and take actions like pay bills, settle debts, and sell property on your behalf if you become incapacitated and unable to do this yourself.

Trust

The number of different types of trusts are practically limitless and a trust could be a valuable estate planning protection tool in some situations. A successor trustee could be named and the document could be used as a safeguard for financial protection.

woman walking down street with flowers

Proactivity is Key

By being proactive, you can be certain that someone you love and trust will be responsible with their guardianship powers and big/small life decisions, not the courts. Have these documents crafted by an experienced estate planner (not a DIY website) and keep them up-to-date as circumstances change. Luckily there are smart people in Iowa working toward policy change, such as the National Health Law and Policy (NHLP) Resource Center at the University of Iowa College of Law and their recent task force report citing 232 policy recommendations. But, the road toward substantial policy change is long and it’s best to have your own legal safeguards in place just in case.

Want to discuss guardianship further or get started on your powers of attorney documents? Contact me at any time.

Let’s set everything straight about all the benefits and important aspects of a health care power of attorney.

What is a health care power of attorney?

A health care power of attorney (“POA”) is a legal instrument that allows you to select the person (called an “agent”) that you want to make health care decisions for you, if and when you become unable to make such decisions for yourself.

healthcare power of attorney

What types of decisions can be made by a health care POA?

A health care POA can govern any decision related to your health that you want to address. A health care POA may include decisions related to organ donation, hospitalization, treatment in a nursing home, home health care, psychiatric treatment, end-of-life (i.e. the use of life support), and more.

When would I use a health care POA?

A health care POA is used when you become unable to make health care decisions for yourself. Your agent will be able to make decisions for you based on the information you provided in your health care POA. Equally important, your agent will be access your medical records, communicate with your health care providers, and so on.

doctor stethoscope

What happens if I don’t have a health care POA?

If you don’t have a health care POA, and you should become disabled to the point where you are unable to make health care decisions for yourself, the hospital will do everything possible to save your life.

Your family, without guidance from you, will be faced with agonizing decisions. Your family members may not be able to agree on how to handle your medical care. Or, you might disagree with the decision your family ultimately makes.

If your family can’t agree on a course of action, they would have to go to an Iowa Court and have a conservator/guardian appointed for you. It may, or may not, be someone you would have chosen. Further, the conservator/guardian may make decisions you wouldn’t have made.

This is all very complicated, time consuming, and expensive.  A health care POA simplifies this process by giving you control over how decisions are made for you and allowing you to choose who will carry out your wishes. Best of all, it leaves your family with peace of mind.

Is there a “one-size-fits-all” POA for health care?

No! All Iowans are special and unique, and so are each individual’s issues and concerns. Consequently, this article is presented for informational purposes only, not as legal advice. Please consult your lawyer for personal advice.

Do I need other estate planning documents in addition to a health care POA?

Yes, definitely! (It’s even essential for college students.) There are six “must have” estate planning documents that make up a complete, comprehensive estate plan. (Plus some people may also need to consider a trust.)


Do you have a health care POA currently? And do you have a complete estate plan? Why or why not? I’d be most interested in any thoughts or comments. Email me anytime at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com or call 515-371-6077.

Arrows pointing up

An estate plan is simply a set of legal documents to prepare for your death or disability. The specific documents you’ll need depends on various factors, including the number, size, type of your assets, and your overall estate planning goals.

If forced to list the top 10 major components and the associated goals of a comprehensive estate plan, I’d list the following (in rough order of importance):

  1. A plan for orderly disposition of all your property of your choosing.
  2. Naming guardians to raise and care for minor children.
  3. Naming fiduciaries to handle minor children’s assets.
  4. A plan to help fund the charities you supported during your lifetime.
  5. A financial power of attorney so you can name an agent to manage your financial decisions, if you are ever unable to do so, with as specific (or non-specific) directions to the agent as you desire.
  6. A healthcare power of attorney so you can name an agent to manage your financial decisions, if you are ever unable to do so, with as specific (or non-specific) directions to the agent as you desire.
  7. A plan for succession or sale of a business (often a close corporation or family business).
  8. A plan to dispose of property in a tax advantaged manner.
  9. Planning for life insurance to support those economically dependent on you and/or to provide liquidity for the estate.
  10. Making known your wishes (whether simple or complex) regarding the disposition of your final remains.

Of course, any order of importance is unique to that individual. Someone with, say, minor children will find items #2 and #3 incredibly important. Someone else with adult children, or no children at all, but with a very large estate may look at #8 as quite significant. One list doesn’t fit all, just like there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for estate planning.

woman cheering at water's edge

What are your estate planning goals? Feel free to share with others in the comments below.

Estate planning is a smart step you can take today. The easiest way to get started is with my free, no-obligation estate plan questionnaire. If you have questions or want to discuss your individual situation, don’t hesitate to reach me by phone (515-371-6077) or email.

College student in graduation robes

If your child went to college this year you likely helped them acquire dorm essentials, review their class schedule, and file all the necessary paperwork for enrollment, student loans, financial aid, and the like. Give yourself a pat on the back; as a parent you should feel great that the small human you raised is beginning to charter the course for a successful, fulfilling life!

However, there are likely two important documents you (and your college student) didn’t have on the college prep list: power of attorney for healthcare and financial power of attorney.

I encourage every Iowan to have these essential documents a part of their quality estate plan. However, college students are in a unique position since many don’t yet have the need for a full estate plan if they don’t have children, pets, substantial financial assets, real estate, at the time they head off for their undergraduate education. But, even if a college student doesn’t have a need for an entire estate plan, they still need these power of attorney documents. Let’s review both.

Power of Attorney for Healthcare

A power of attorney for healthcare designates someone to handle your healthcare decisions for you if you become unable to make those decisions for yourself. This essentially gives another person the power to make decisions on your behalf. For example, if you don’t want to be kept alive with machines, you can clearly outline that in your power of attorney for healthcare. Keep in mind that power of attorney for healthcare isn’t just about end-of-life decisions—it can cover any medical situation. So, in a worst case scenario, if your (adult) child were to have some sort of debilitating accident and were deemed by a medical professional unable to make healthcare decisions for themselves, then a trusted adult (such as you, the parent) could make such decisions in the best interest of their health.

Power of Attorney for Finances

The power of attorney for finances is similar to the power of attorney for healthcare; your designated agent has the power to make decisions and act on your behalf when it comes to your finances. This gives the selected agent the authority to pay bills, settle debts, sell property, or anything else that needs to be done if you become incapacitated and unable to do this yourself.

While college students may not have many financial assets, their bank accounts, credit cards and apartment leases in their name should all be taken into consideration and accounted for. Additionally, a financial power of attorney can cover digital assets including online accounts for their school, banking, email, and social media, among others. Without passing along the necessary digital information and instructions to digital accounts, parents if they’re the authorized representative, can face major headaches on issues such paying bills, accessing bank records, shutting down social media profiles, and the like she says.

Course of Action: Avoid Court

Having power of attorney documents in place also prevents someone, like you as a parent, from having to go to court to get permission to act as the student’s proxy. Avoiding court at all costs (pun intended) is a wise plan as it’s both time consuming and expensive.

Does State Residency Matter?

A power of attorney that’s validly executed in the state in which an individual has full-time residency is usually honored across the U.S. But, what if your child is enrolled at a school out-of-state? Not a problem. Simply have your in-state attorney contact a recommended attorney in the state where the school is located to confirm the power of attorney document would be valid in that state and if not, recommend provisions to ensure it would be.

College student tossing cap into air

Why Now?

When your child is a minor (under age 18) you need certain legal documents such as nomination of guardianship. Once your child turns 18 (AKA becomes a legal adult) they are no longer under your immediate care as their guardian you as their parent are no longer responsible for making their healthcare decisions. Yet, all of us need someone we trust to make decisions in our best interest, which is why adults (even college students and young professionals) need power of attorney documents established.

How to get Started? Have a conversation.

As a parent you cannot force your college student to sign a power of attorney, but you may be one of the best people to discuss the topic. While a topic that includes debilitating injuries and the prospect of death is not a pleasant one for anyone involved, it’s nonetheless important. As a trusted adult you can explain how these documents could make a vital difference in some health and financial related situations. A good place to start in the conversation is explain what the documents are and how they can be used to execute their personal wishes.


I’m always happy to help more Iowans (at any age) get the necessary estate planning documents they need. Contact me by phone or via email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com and we can get started.

Financials in book

What is a financial power of attorney?

A financial power of attorney is a legal document that designates someone to handle your financial decisions on your behalf.

What happens if I don’t have a financial power of attorney?

If you do not have a power of attorney and you were to become incapacitated, any financial decisions would need to be made by a court-appointed conservator. At a court’s direction, the conservator would handle your financial assets. It’s a quite expensive and time consuming process, especially compared to the relative simplicity of executing a power of attorney.

After I die, can my agent continue to operate under my financial power of attorney?

A common misperception is that your agent will be able to use this power after your death. At your death, any power of the agent is automatically revoked and it will be necessary to switch management to the representative appointed through probate.

Laptop with finance info on it

Who should I choose to serve as an agent?

The agent you choose will be managing your finances, so it is critically important to choose someone trustworthy; someone who will not abuse or exploit this power; someone who will listen to your wishes, goals, and objectives, as included in the document or otherwise communicated; and, someone who will look out for your best interests.

You also have the option of designating a successor agent who can take over if the original agent is unable or unwilling to serve. This is highly recommended.

Who should receive a copy of my financial power of attorney?

The person named as agent and any person named as a successor agent should receive a copy. It would also be wise to share a copy with your financial institution(s), such as your bank or credit union.

Can I revoke the financial power of attorney?

Yes, you may revoke the document, at any time. You can also amend the document (change it, revise it, etc.) at anytime.


Financial power of attorney is one of the six main documents which comprise Iowans’ estate plans. To get started on establishing your financial power of attorney contact me by phone at 515-371-6077 or email.