Teresa McUsic

What to do when an elderly neighbor needs a guardian

Teresa McUsic

Judges in Tarrant County Probate Court can get a guardian appointed to help an elderly person in need.
Judges in Tarrant County Probate Court can get a guardian appointed to help an elderly person in need. STAR-TELEGRAM archives

An elderly woman in her 80s whom we’ll call Molly recently was wandering her street at night, causing concern in her tight-knit neighborhood. Her family all lived out of the state and her caregivers were gone because she had hit them.

Molly’s next-door neighbor turned to the Tarrant County Probate Court and filed an information letter, found on the court’s website, to the probate judge suggesting the need for guardianship or an investigation.

The probate court did investigate, and Molly’s front door was ajar when Dyann McCully, a Fort Worth attorney in the case, came to talk to her.

“The neighbors kept an eye on her,” McCully said. “But she was wandering out at night, she drove, she was not eating and she had short-term memory problems.”

The neighbor testified before the judge about Molly’s condition and ultimately the family hired a temporary private professional guardian to get her in a healthcare facility to have her assessed.

“It’s all about trying to do what is best for them,” McCully said. “Usually we’re not talking about sending them to a nursing home. Most of the time they are physically fairly strong. They don’t need a nurse, they need a secure, safe environment.”

Such an alternative is one area of law to be discussed April 22 at this year’s 13th annual People’s Law School, a free clinic open to the public hosted by the Tarrant County Bar Association.

The school, which routinely draws around 300 people, covers a variety of subjects from adult guardianship to wills and trusts. This year, there are eight topics to choose from during three 50-minute sessions.

McCully, an attorney with the Blum firm, said guardianship is becoming an increasingly relevant topic as our population ages.

“It is an area of growth because of the aging baby boomers,” she said. “More folks are needing assistance. And no one wants to move out of their home.”

A call to Adult Protective Services may or may not get investigated, McCully said.

“APS will sometimes investigate, but they are overworked and understaffed,” she said. The probate court is another authority to turn to. If you have a concern about someone who may need a guardian, the procedure is explained on the court’s website at https://www.tarrantcounty.com/en/probate-courts.html.

Not all cases end up with a full guardianship and/or moving the person into a nursing home, she said.

“I would say about half the time we are successful in avoiding guardianship,” she said. “We’ve seen people get better after they were properly evaluated and treated.”

Probate and some recent probate alternatives will be discussed at the People’s Law School by attorney Louis Stefanos.

Among his topics will be Transfer on Death deeds, created by the Texas Legislature and put into effect in 2015. The deeds simplify the process for transferring a property to a named beneficiary without having to go through probate court.

Mostly designed for a single residents, a Transfer on Death deed must be signed, notarized and recorded in the deed records of the county where the property is located prior to the death of the grantor. The deed does not go into effect until the property owner dies, and it can be revoked if the property owner wishes.

The property owner still has the same rights of ownership while they are alive, such as getting a property exemption, using the house as collateral on a loan or selling the property.

The Texas Access to Justice Commission has a do-it-yourself Transfer on Death deed kit online that includes the forms and instructions for completing the deeds, a revocation form and an affidavit of death that must be filed when the property owner dies. The kit is available at www.TexasLawHelp.org.

A small estate affidavit is another way to avoid probate court, Stefanos said.

This process is designed for people without a will and must be filed by an attorney within 30 days after a person passes away. The forms and help can be found at the Texas State Law Library at www.sll.texas.gov and www.TexasLawHelp.org.

Attorney Steve Katten will be discussing when to take Social Security, as well as information on disability and survivor benefits, during his session.

“We have people coming in to ask about disability, but they don’t realize they have to have worked 20 of the last 40 quarters to qualify or they can’t get into the system,” he said.

As to when to start Social Security, Katten said many people start at 62 because they think it is the best way to get all the money back they have poured into the system during their work life.

Katten disagrees.

“The full benefit age is 66 now, but it can increase your benefit 5 percent every year after that until age 70,” he said. “I’m a big believer in delaying as long as you can, unless your health is bad, in which case you should take it sooner.”

Sign up for the People’s Law School today. It’s free, and it just might save you some money.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net

People’s Law School

▪ Noon-4 p.m., April 22

▪ Free. Register at 817-338-4092 or www.TarrantBar.org or email Sandy@TarrantBar.org. Walk-ins welcome as space permits.

▪ Texas A&M School of Law, 1515 Commerce St., Fort Worth

▪ Topics: wills and trusts, family law, Medicaid, probate and probate alternatives, adult guardianship, Social Security, landlord/tenant, school law