Articles and Columns

Carissa Giebel column: Avoiding Guardianships

10:21 PM, Aug 27, 2012 |

Is estate planning one of those things you have been putting off for a while? Perhaps you feel uncomfortable planning for after death. But what you may not know is that a large part of estate planning is actually planning for your lifetime, too.

What if you are unable to make your own financial or medical decisions while you are still alive? Who do you want to make those decisions on your behalf? There is no default in Wisconsin law that automatically grants your spouse or children those rights.

In Wisconsin, there are two ways for someone else to have legal authority to make decisions on your behalf. The first option, which is preferred, is that you do the powers of attorney now while you still have capacity, so you can choose the people you would like to act on your behalf. You can also choose successor agents, which means you can make a second and third alternate option, in case the first person you choose is unable or unwilling to act. You can also decide which powers you want the person(s) you named to have, and you can coordinate your nomination with your overall estate plan.

If you do not have powers of attorney drafted and signed while you still have capacity, and someone is needed to act on your behalf, your family will have to go through a guardianship proceeding at the court. The judge will choose who will act on your behalf and what powers they will have. Your family will have to file a petition alleging why they think a guardian needs to be appointed and who they think should act as the guardian. An attorney, as a guardian ad litem, will be appointed to determine what is in your best interests. A physician or psychologist will exam you and provide the court with a statement regarding your mental capacity to make decisions. The court will schedule a hearing to determine your competency and decide who, if anyone, should act on your behalf.

Unfortunately, guardianships can open the door to family disputes. Often times, everyone involved agrees of the need for a guardianship, but disagrees on who should serve as the guardian. This is one of the reasons a guardian ad litem is appointed because he or she will need to make a determination on what is in your best interests.

A guardian of the person can be appointed to make health care decisions and/or a guardian of the estate can be appointed to make financial decisions. This is why both a power of attorney for finances and a health care power of attorney need to be done now while you still have capacity.

If you have powers of attorney already, have them reviewed to make sure they are up to date and reflecting your current wishes. It’s also a good idea to have them reviewed by legal counsel if you are interested in allowing your named agent(s) to do asset protection planning on your behalf, in case you would ever need nursing home care.

As you can see, it will save your loved ones quite a bit of time, and expenses, if you do the powers of attorney now. Plus, it allows you to make all the decisions ahead of time, rather than putting the ultimate decision making authority in the hands of a judge who does not even know you.

Carissa Giebel is an estate planning attorney and partner at Legacy Law Group LLC. She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or (920) 560-4651.

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