Involuntary Commitment: When Is It Time To Bring In Counsel?

Restoration of Capacity

Last month, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed the district court’s involuntary commitment of a married, successful business owner in her late fifties (“Maggie”) to the Montana State Hospital because she showed evidence that she was unable to provide for her own basic needs, including refusing to take medication to treat her diagnosed bipolar disorder, showed signs of insomnia, lacked insight into her illness and her inability to protect her own health and safety.

Below is Maggie’s story. If you, or someone you know, is experiencing similar life-altering symptoms, it’s important to know that retaining counsel as early as possible in a psychiatric emergency situation is essential in preventing an unnecessary involuntary commitment.

What is an involuntary commitment? It is a legal proceeding to obtain a court order requiring a mentally ill individual to receive necessary psychiatric treatment that he needs but has not agreed to.  The process of obtaining the order is often initiated through a mental health screening and requires a determination that the person to be held is at risk of endangering himself or others. If it is determined that the individual can afford to pay for the cost of psychiatric care, they may be ordered to pay for the care from their own income and resources.

Why is it important to involve counsel early in the process? Retaining counsel can:

  • protect your rights
  • help you legally limit your financial responsibility where appropriate
  • provide valuable information regarding long-term care placement options and can review admissions agreements, and where the individual who is involuntarily committed is married, and cannot return to the home, counsel can help protect assets and income for the healthy spouse.
  • offer guidance regarding the next steps to take, whether it be a conservatorship, guardianship or a Medicaid or charity care application

Here’s Maggie’s story:

In 2018, Maggie lost twenty pounds and developed a sleep disorder. Over a period of approximately one week, she made multiple visits to the emergency room to obtain medical attention.  She was diagnosed with insomnia, prescribed a sleep regimen and sleep medicine, was otherwise healthy and had no history of self-harm or dangerous behavior. Maggie reported that she elected to stop driving due to the insomnia.

Fast forward to one week later, Maggie returned to the emergency department with her family due to continuing sleep issues and “high energy behaviors.” A licensed clinical social worker concluded that she was experiencing a manic episode and bipolar disorder and filed a report recommending her involuntary commitment.  The state filed its response the next day and Maggie was ordered to be held overnight pending the involuntary commitment hearing at a residential mental health facility.

Shortly after getting admitted, an evaluation was conducted and the examiner testified at the involuntary commitment hearing that Maggie had pressured speech, tangential thinking, poor judgment and insight, inability to consent to taking medication and that she exhibited paranoia with respect to the side effects of the medication prescribed.  The examiner testified that Maggie was advised that the appellant was a danger to herself due to her multiple emergency room visits, her refusal to take medication, and because she drank too many Pedialyte beverages in attempt to correct an imbalance in her electrolytes.  At the involuntary commitment hearing, the court found that Maggie presented a danger to herself and that her condition might decompensate without intervention and ordered her involuntarily committed to the state hospital.

On review, the supreme court admitted that this case was not as compelling as several prior cases in which an involuntary commitment was upheld.  However, the lower court’s decision was sustained, based on testimony that the woman had poor insight into her illness, lacked the ability to make decisions protective of her own health and safety, and was unwilling to take any medication that would resolve her manic symptoms.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

Medicare Open Season – Important Deadlines

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The Medicare Open Enrollment window for 2020 runs from October 15, 2019 until December 7, 2019. Individuals who prefer not to have responsibility for out of pocket costs might consider enrolling in a Medicare Part F plan, which covers most deductibles and out of pocket costs. It is critical to enroll in such a plan during the upcoming open season window, because Part F plans are being phased out and will no longer be available to Medicare enrollees who are not enrolled in such a plan, or have not elected to enroll, as of December 31, 2019.

Medicare Part C enrollment will also be phased out for individuals who have not enrolled in a Medicare Part C plan as of December 31, 2019. Medicare Supplemental Plans C are private plans that deliver Medicare Part A and B services through a private insurance company.

The bottom line is that seniors and disabled individuals who will be eligible for Medicare A prior to January 1, 2020 and who prefer Medicare Part C or F coverage will need to sign up for these plans during the upcoming open enrollment period.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

ABLE Savings Registry – The Gift that Keeps on Giving

ABLE Program in New JerseyABLE accounts are special, tax qualified disability savings vehicles for seriously disabled individuals, who had a qualifying disability incurred prior to age 26.  As long as the rules of the ABLE program are complied with, a seriously disabled individual can receive up to $15,000 (in 2019) in funds in an ABLE account without the funds being counted against him in determining the individual’s eligibility for public benefits, including Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income.

Favorable income tax provisions apply to protect the income earned on funds contributed to an ABLE account, as long as the contribution is not distributed out of the account, or if the contributions are distributed out of the ABLE account, any income is not subject to federal income tax to the extent that it is spent during the same calendar year for qualified disability related expenses.

Qualified disability expenses are expenses which relate to the account beneficiary’s blindness or disability and enhance his or her enjoyment of life as a result of the disability. Qualified disability expenses can encompass basic living expenses, transportation, education, assistive technology, legal expenses, medical care and education and training.

Here is a digital-age tip for parents, grandparents and gift-giving relatives of young adults who are eligible for an ABLE account and want to attend college. There is a new, web platform www.giftofcollege.com which can help make saving for college (while continuing to qualify for means-tested public benefits) easier than ever.  The new platform enables a disabled individual eligible to link their ABLE account to an online profile. Invitations to contribute funds can also be sent electronically.

For more disability savings strategies and resources, consult with an experienced special needs and disability lawyer.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

Is My Memory Loss Normal Aging or Something More?

Sad senior woman after quarrel

Garden variety memory lapses, like misplacing car keys, are normal, but where do you draw the line? A good rule of thumb is that if you notice that your loved one has repeated episodes of memory loss, and/or troubling personality changes or difficulty performing everyday tasks, like driving or financial management, it could be time for a crisis elder care plan. Here are some red flags to watch for:

  • Asking the same questions over and over again;
  • Repeating the same stories;
  • Difficulty paying bills, balancing the check book or reading a bank or credit card statement;
  • Difficulty adding and subtracting;
  • Late notices and missed payments, unopened mail accumulating;
  • Paying the same bill multiple times in the same month;
  • Difficulty performing everyday tasks (getting lost and being unable to find your way home, forgetting how to operate a home appliance);
  • Decline in personal hygiene (not bathing or brushing teeth, wearing the same clothing day after day);
  • Inappropriate attire, behavior, statements and/or language;
  • Confusion or word-finding difficulty (ex. asking where the “bread-thingy” is instead of where the toaster is;
  • Inability to retain new information; and/or
  • Irritability or foul language, behavior consistent with depression, apathy, anxiety, agitation, delusions and hallucinations, wandering, aggression

If you notice one or more of these signs, it may be a good idea to contact an elder lawyer without delay. An elder lawyer can help you find the best care and a way to pay for that care with public benefits, while protecting your life savings and the family home.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.

Support for New Jersey’s Unpaid Caregivers

Support for New Jersey’s Unpaid Caregivers

Caregiving, done well, can be the ultimate act of service and potentially a game-changer, enabling an elderly or functionally disabled individual to remain at home surrounded by their family, friends and happy memories.

However noble and important, caregiving often imposes a heavy financial, physical and emotional toll on unpaid caregivers, who statistically face a higher incidence of missed time from work, loss of employment, and of developing adverse emotional conditions such as anxiety, depression, and burn out, adverse health conditions and even physical injury.

The value of self-care on the part of the caregiver is essential. At a minimum, caregivers should take regular breaks, get physical exercise, maintain good nutrition and get plenty of rest, which is often easier said than done. With the number of elderly and disabled individuals reliant on care from unpaid caregivers projected to double by 2020, unpaid caregivers will face unprecedented challenges.

The state of New Jersey has taken up the challenge of supporting caregivers with recently enacted Public Law 2018, c166. Passed by the New Jersey legislature and signed by Acting Governor Sheila Oliver on December 28, 2018, the new law establishes the New Jersey Caregiver Task Force. The purpose of the task force is to evaluate existing supports for New Jersey caregivers and to develop recommendations for the improvement and expansion of caregiver support services within our state. The task force will take testimony from caregivers regarding the care duties performed, the sufficiency of caregiver training programs, the costs which caregivers face and their own personal caregiving experiences.  The task force will prepare a report with recommendations for new laws and regulatory or program changes to improve, expand and supplement existing caregiver support programs and systems within the state.

New Jersey’s new focus on caregivers is not unprecedented. In 2017, the state of Hawaii passed the Kapuna Care Act, which established the Kapuna Caregivers Assistance program to provide family caregivers who work with resources to help pay for care services for elderly individuals over age sixty residing in the community and requiring assistance with at least two activities of daily living or having substantial cognitive impairment.  Under the Hawaiian model, cash payments are available to help working caregivers defray some care-related costs.

At the federal level, the RAISE Family Caregivers Act was signed into law on January 8, 2018, and directs the Department of Health and Human Services to develop, maintain and update a National Family Caregiving Strategy and to convene a Family Caregiving Advisory Council. The Act defines family caregivers as adult family members or other individual having a “… significant relationship with” and providing “a broad range of assistance to an individual with a chronic or other health condition, disability or functional limitation.” The bill is designed to specify recommended actions which can be undertaken by federal, state, and local governments, communities, health care providers, and long term services and supports to assist family caregivers.

Questions? Let Jane know.

Jane Fearn-Zimmer is a shareholder in the Elder and Disability LawTaxation, and Trusts and Estates Groups. She dedicates her practice to serving clients in the areas of elder and disability law, special needs planning, asset protection, tax and estate planning and estate administration. She also serves as Chair of the Elder & Disability Law section of the NJSBA.