You have the right to decide how you want your property distributed at the time of your death. Estate planning allows you to direct how your assets will be divided and distributed among beneficiaries designated by you. Estate planning documents also allow you to appoint a guardian for a minor or disabled child. Usually included in the term “estate planning” is planning for incapacity; in other words, planning for how your affairs will be handled if you become unable to manage them yourself. Powers of attorney for health care and finances, in addition to trusts, can be used to plan for incapacity.
If you have no will or trust, Utah law directs how your property will be distributed after your death. The law distributes property in the way the legislature thought most people would want their property distributed. For example, if you have no will and you are married, your surviving spouse inherits every- thing, unless you have children from another relationship who are not the children of your surviving spouse. If you have no living spouse, your children inherit equal shares. If no relative can be found, the estate goes to the Utah State Schools Fund. If the legal default is not what you want, you need a will or trust. In addition, if you have a disabled child or spouse, you should consult an attorney about the need for a will or trust.
If you appoint a fiduciary agent you should not need a guardianship or conservatorship. If, however, you did not appoint an agent, if your appointed agent cannot serve in that role, or if other complicating factors arise, a court-ordered guardianship and/or conservatorship may be necessary.
Guardianship: A guardian is appointed by a court after a hearing that establishes the need for a guardian. A court may give a guardian the power to make decisions about your medical care, housing, and other routine decisions. For individuals with few assets, a court may also give the guardian the power to manage your finances. The guardian must make annual reports to the court with respect to the care and status of the ward. Generally the guardian is a family member, if one is available and willing to act. Utah law allows you to nominate a guardian in a written document or as part of an Advance Health Care Directive or Power of Attorney for Health Care.
Conservatorship: A conservator is a court-appointed manager of the financial affairs of an incapacitated individual. It is similar to a financial power of attorney except that the conservator has more legal authority to act on behalf of an incapacitated individual. A conservator is required to keep detailed records of his or her financial management and file an annual accounting with the court that is open for review of interested persons, such as family members. Utah law allows a person to nominate a conservator in a written document or as part of a Financial Power of Attorney.
Adapted from Utah Commission on Aging Financial Security Guide (2007), published by AARP.