#FreeBritney. How is Conservatorship Supposed to Work?

#FreeBritney. How is Conservatorship Supposed to Work?

The recent media attention to pop star, Britney Spears’ conservatorship has painted a dismal picture of arrangements whereby a court-appointed individual has authority to control various aspects of another individual’s finances and personal decisions. Public opinion has been harshly critical of the long-running conservatorship, fueled by Spears’ claims that her conservators are not just overstepping their authority, but that they are abusive and exploitive.

Spears’ pleas to end her conservatorship have caught the attention of not only her fans and the Hollywood elite, but of legal and mental health professionals who are interested in legislative reform to conservatorship arrangements. Conservatorships (called “guardianships” in Wisconsin) are meant to protect vulnerable individuals by placing their decision-making rights in someone else’s hands. If the decision-making authority is in the hands of someone who is abusive or exploitive, an individual under conservatorship is particularly unable to defend themselves given their incapacities. This is where court oversight becomes a necessity.

Importantly, as with most areas of the law, the legal rules differ from state to state. In Wisconsin, there are two arrangements whereby a court-appointed individual controls another person’s finances or their personal/health care. The first arrangement is called “guardianship,” which is an involuntary appointment of a responsible person (called the guardian) for someone who the court has determined cannot care for himself or herself, or who cannot manage his or her own finances (called the ward). The court can appoint a guardian of estate (finances) or a guardian of person, or both. The second arrangement, called “conservatorship” is a voluntary arrangement whereby an individual (called the conservatee) asks the court to appoint a conservator to handle their finances. The voluntary conservatorship can be terminated by the conservatee at any time upon request. In many states, including California where the Spears case is being addressed, a conservatorship is an involuntary procedure.

Guardianship and conservatorships are often used for people who have severe cognitive impairment that renders them substantially incapable of receiving and evaluating information necessary to make appropriate financial, personal and health care decisions. The impairment may be the result of conditions such as dementia, developmental disabilities, mental illness or brain injuries, for instance.

In Wisconsin, guardianship is considered an extreme step used as a last resort and when there are no other less restrictive options. A ward has the right to their own attorney, the right to present medical evidence that their incapacities are not sufficient to require guardianship, and a say in who becomes their guardian. In addition, the court is required to appoint an independent attorney, called a Guardian ad Litem, whose role is to evaluate whether guardianship is in the proposed ward’s best interests.

Wisconsin’s guardianship laws have already been reformed to provide that a ward’s rights are only removed if absolutely necessary. A ward should retain the right to make all decisions he or she is capable of making with appropriate supports in place. The authority of a guardian in Wisconsin only extends to those areas of functioning that a person cannot manage on their own (or on their own with support). It is not intended to be used to protect someone from making “bad” decisions. The court is required to evaluate whether a ward should lose their right to take part in all areas of decision making, or whether the ward should retain rights in certain areas.

Ending a guardianship can be difficult if the ward cannot demonstrate by medical or other evidence that the condition resulting in their incapacity has improved, or that other supports have allowed appropriate functioning to resume, but the law is clear that a ward may request (petition) to end their guardianship. Further, if the law is intended to be less restrictive to the individual, it stands to reason that the conservatorship should be terminated if the individual no longer meets the standards.

In Spears’ case, it is impossible to speculate whether the conservatorship should be terminated without knowing all the facts. Persons under guardianships and conservatorships often have improved functioning in many personal and financial aspects of their lives simply because they are benefiting from assisted decision making, medication management and are free from outside exploitation. Under appropriate review and oversight, the conservatorship or guardianship should nonetheless be terminated if the standard for incapacity is no longer met. This can be a hard pill to swallow for concerned family members who believe – often correctly – that once assisted decision making is over, the dysfunctional behavior will resume.

Either way, it is important to remember that although the case of a famous pop star might bring about legislative reform, when handled properly, conservatorships and guardianships play an important role in protecting elderly, disabled and mentally ill adults from abuse, exploitation and the harm that could result from the inability to make effective decisions. If you are concerned about a loved one with impaired decision making, it is important to talk to an attorney who specializes in guardianship and conservator arrangements regarding appropriate options.

 

Injured in an Auto Accident? Who Will Pay Your Medical Bills?

Injured in an Auto Accident? Who Will Pay Your Medical Bills?

If you are injured in an automobile accident, you may be wondering who will pay for accident-related care and treatment. Prior to a settlement or jury verdict, it is unlikely that the responsible party will pay for care and treatment. Therefore, you will likely turn to your health insurer for payment.

If you do not have health insurance through an employer plan, private plan or government plan, the prospect of unpaid medical bills may be daunting. Therefore, it is important to consult your own automobile policy declarations to determine if you have coverage for accident-related medical expenses.

Although not every policy has medical expense coverage, many policies have a small amount of coverage ranging from $1,000 to $10,000. Some auto insurers offer higher amounts, even up to $100,000. While this may seem like a lot of coverage, the cost of significantly increasing the amount of medical expense coverage on your automobile policy may be minimal. Therefore, it is highly recommended that you consult with your automobile insurance agent to discuss options for increasing your medical expense coverage.

This is true even if you have health insurance through your employer. Employer-sponsored health plans may have high deductibles that could leave you with significant responsibility for medical expenses until met. Having medical expense coverage under your automobile policy may assist in covering these expenses. Moreover, under federal law, some employer-sponsored health plans may claim a first right of recovery from any settlement.

Medical expenses paid under an automobile policy, however, are likely subject to a doctrine known as made-whole. The made-whole doctrine provides that the auto insurer making medical payments is not entitled to be reimbursed for medical expenses paid until you are made whole for injuries and damages sustained.

After you receive a settlement from the responsible party’s insurer, it is often possible to negotiate a reduction in the amount of medical expenses to be reimbursed to the insurer paying under the medical expense coverage of an automobile policy to avoid a dispute as to whether the settlement has made you whole.

If you are involved in an automobile accident, you should always remember to check your own automobile policy to access any benefits you may have for medical expense coverage. It is equally important to be proactive by considering increasing your medical expense coverage now before you are the unfortunate victim of a serious automobile accident.

 

What Does the Indemnification Clause in My Contract Mean?

What Does the Indemnification Clause in My Contract Mean?

Indemnification provisions provide an important tool to parties seeking to allocate the risk of third-party damages and liabilities when contracting. When reviewing a contract, most people understandably first consider things like deadlines, pricing information, and the description of the assets to be transferred or the services to be performed. While these things are of course important, a well drafted contract can do much more. Frequently overlooked as “boiler plate” language, the exact structure and wording of an indemnification clause can become vitally important to protect your interests and limit the impact of creditor claims for actions you had little control over or means to prevent. These clauses should be fully understood and carefully considered before signing an agreement. Some contracts may not use the word “indemnification,” rather phrases like “hold harmless” or agreements to “defend” the other party and are a red flag that something like an indemnification clause may be at play. For such reasons you should always look beyond the heading of a section when interpreting the text at issue.

The assignment of responsibilities for liabilities is often a large part of agreements for commercial transactions. While the parties to a contract have broad discretion to transfer property, obligations and liability between themselves, they are limited in their ability to dictate that third parties – who have not joined into the contract – respect the terms of an agreement they had no say in. This conforms to the broader legal principle that “no one gives what they do not have.” For the same reason you cannot contract to sell something that belongs to another without their consent, you cannot contract to limit the rights of others to make claims they are otherwise entitled to make. Because the allocation of liability for certain causes of action is such an important part of many contractual matters, parties sometimes instead use indemnification provisions to essentially refund, or “indemnify,” the other party if they suffer damages resulting from certain types of issues.

To illustrate this principle, consider the following situation. A business owner rents a storefront from a landlord and agrees in the lease that they can only sue the landlord under certain circumstances. The business owner accepts certain risks or faults with the property they are renting.  For this example, assume the landlord discloses the radiator is not up to code and could cause a burn, so the tenant will take on the responsibility to get it fixed and agrees not to sue the landlord if they get burned by it before it is fixed. On its face, this arrangement seems a valid contractual exchange – the landlord gives up the right to use the property for a set time in exchange for: (1) rent and (2) the tenant’s agreement to limit suit against them from injuries over certain disclosed problems and (3) the agreement by tenant to fix the radiator.

In contrast, the landlord cannot effectively include a provision saying that “none of your customers can sue me if they are injured on the property, because you are responsible for keeping it in good and safe condition.” Despite the landlord shifting responsibility to keep the property in good condition to the tenant, they cannot prohibit third parties from making claims against the landlord if they are injured on the property. If the business owner fails to have the radiator replaced and a customer burns themselves while shopping, the burned customer would be fully within their rights to sue the landlord, despite the landlord’s arrangement with the tenant to fix the issue.

To better protect themselves, the landlord should have included an indemnification provision. Since the parties cannot limit who third parties claim damages from, they instead say “If I am forced to pay a certain type of claim, you agree to pay me back.” Here, the lease could apply indemnification to liabilities arising from the tenant’s negligent maintenance or actions with respect to the rented space, perhaps with specific reference to damages from the radiator if they fail to replace it. If the injured customer sues the landlord, the landlord would pay the claim and then seek to enforce the indemnification provision to recover the costs from their tenant who had agreed to indemnify them under these circumstances.

Far from being the “standard provision” they are often dismissed for, indemnification provisions can vary widely in scope, application and duration. Depending on the bargaining power of the parties, all such points may be negotiated.

The scope of an indemnity governs what circumstances are covered under it. A common scope provision might provide damages fall under the indemnity if they are a result of a breach of the agreement, inaccuracy of any representations or warranties made by the indemnifying party. Before agreeing to indemnify another party, consider what type of actions would fall under the described scope, whether any ambiguities exist regarding the scope of coverage and whether you have any control over preventing or reducing the risk of those types of claims. Ideally, you should not be agreeing to indemnify a party for liability resulting from the actions, errors, or omissions of their own or of a third party you have no control over. Wisconsin law permits broad indemnification clauses, but Wisconsin courts tend to strictly construe them, meaning they will not generally stretch the interpretation of the clause to bring an ambiguous situation under the indemnity. Wisconsin also has special rules for the scope of indemnification in construction contracts.

The application of an indemnity relates to how an indemnity will mechanically be triggered, calculated, and resolved. This includes important provisions on the required notices and timelines associated with various aspects of the indemnification procedure. A party seeking to rely on the clause should carefully comply with these technical requirements as the party obligated to pay under it will likely be looking for ways to get out of it if it is triggered. The provision may also place limits on the amounts required to be paid under the clause, or require certain steps are taken to ensure damages are mitigated or funds are available to comply with the indemnification requirements. The parties may require each other to carry insurance policies designed to cover these costs during the term of the indemnity to ensure it is effective. This is important because an indemnification right against a party with no collectible assets does not offer much protection. In the example used earlier of the landlord and tenant, the landlord’s indemnity will not be useful if the tenant has no assets from which to recover or if all of the assets are separated from the limited liability entity which granted the indemnity and thus very difficult to reach.

The duration of the indemnity governs how long the agreement to provide indemnity lasts. Contracts for purchase and sale transactions often have the bulk of the agreement terms end following the transfer of goods and payment, but indemnification provisions are often among the terms separated out and assigned a longer period of “survival.” These terms usually are tied to the statute of limitations for the claims they are being applied against but may still vary.

If you have questions on how an indemnification clause in a contract you are considering will operate, you should speak to a business law attorney to help you review, understand and potentially negotiate alterations to the agreement.

 

Wisconsin’s Home Improvement Code Protects Homeowners When Remodeling

Wisconsin’s Home Improvement Code Protects Homeowners When Remodeling

There has been a significant increase in home remodeling projects since the pandemic began over a year ago, and many people choose to hire a contractor to assist them. Not all contractors provide written contracts with the details of the project, such as total costs, start and completion dates, and the type and quantity of materials to be used. The lack of a written agreement sometimes leads to disputes after the project begins and may lead to arguments about payment at the end of the project. Fortunately for homeowners, Wisconsin has the Home Improvement Practices administrative code sections which set forth requirements and penalties if contractors fail to follow the rules. These rules can be found in Chapter ATCP 110 of the Administrative Code. The rules require a contract, and all changes to that contract, to be in writing and signed by the contractor and the homeowner if (1) the contractor requires money up front, prior to completing the project, or (2) if the contractor solicits a homeowner’s business away from the contractor’s regular place of business, by mail or telephone, or with brochures or circulars delivered or left at someone’s home.

The requirements under the code are applicable if the project involves “Home Improvement” which the code defines as follows:

“Home improvement” means the remodeling, altering, repairing, painting, or modernizing of residential or non-commercial property, or the making of additions thereto, and includes, but is not limited to, the construction, installation, replacement, improvement, or repair of driveways, sidewalks, swimming pools, terraces, patios, landscaping, fences, porches, garages, basements and basement waterproofing, fire protection devices, heating and air conditioning equipment, water softeners, heaters and purifiers, wall-to-wall carpeting or attached or inlaid floor coverings, and other changes, repairs, or improvements made in or on, attached to, or forming a part of, the residential or non-commercial property. The term extends to the conversion of existing commercial structures into residential or non-commercial property. “Home improvement” does not include the construction of a new residence or the major renovation of an existing structure.

As you can see, home improvement is defined in very broad terms. You should note that it does not apply to construction of a new residence or the major renovation of an existing structure.

If a written contract is required under the code based on the circumstances described earlier, the contract must contain the following information:

  • The contractor’s name and address, and the name and address of the contractor’s sales representative or agent.
  • A description of the work to be done and the principal materials to be used. If the contractor promises to install specific products or materials, the contract must clearly describe those products or materials.
  • The total price, including finance charges. If the contract is for time and materials, it must clearly disclose the hourly labor charge.
  • The dates by which, or the time period within which, the contractor will begin and complete the work.
  • A description of any mortgage or security interest created in connection with the sale or financing of the home improvement.
  • All warranties that the contractor makes for labor, services, products or materials furnished in connection with the home improvement.
  • A description of every document incorporated in the home improvement contract.
  • Insurance coverage included in the home improvement contract, if any.

Additional provisions in the Home Improvement Code require the contractor to provide the customer with a written notice advising that the customer has a right to receive lien waivers. The code also requires that the contractor inform the customer of all building and construction permit requirements, and the contractor must refrain from starting work until the permits have been issued.

Should a contractor fail to comply with these code requirements, a homeowner has several potential remedies including the following:

  1. Cancel the contract;
  2. Demand return of any payments which the contractor has not yet earned;
  3. Demand delivery of all materials the homeowner already paid for;
  4. Demand an accounting of all payments that were made by the homeowner;
  5. The homeowner may be able to recover twice the amount of any damages they sustain as a result of the contractor’s violation of the Home Improvement Code;
  6. A homeowner may be able to recover actual attorneys’ fees that they incur in pursuing claims against the contractor for violations of this code.

If a homeowner is in a position where they believe they have sustained damages because a contractor failed to comply with the Home Improvement Code, it is advisable that they consult with a litigation attorney to discuss their options.

 

What is a Title Commitment?

What is a Title Commitment?

In almost every real estate transaction title work will be ordered and a title commitment will be provided to the parties to review prior to closing. A title commitment is a document that provides information pertaining to the property that is subject to the transaction. It will list out the various requirements, exceptions, and details of the title policy that will be issued for the property after closing. Since the title commitment provides valuable information pertaining to the property that a buyer may not otherwise know, it is extremely important to carefully review the title commitment before closing.

There are three sections of a title commitment that should be carefully reviewed. The first section is Schedule A. In this section, you will see information such as the type and amount of the policy, the proposed insured, the interest that the policy will cover, the current owner of the property and the legal description of the property. When reviewing this section, you will want to make sure the current owner and the seller are the same person/entity, the correct property is described and the proposed insured is listed exactly how the buyer plans on taking title. If there are any discrepancies, you will want to have the title commitment revised prior to closing and the title policy being issued.

The next section in the title commitment will be Schedule B-I. This section lists out all the requirements that must be satisfied before the title company will issue the title policy. Typically, you will see requirements such as a warranty deed transferring the property to the buyer, satisfactions of previous mortgages, etc. Additionally, if either of the parties are entities, there will likely be a requirement of documentation authorizing the entity to perform this transaction. It is important you understand both your requirements, as well as the other party’s requirements, so that all requirements are met prior to closing so that the transaction can proceed smoothly.

The last section in the title commitment that you should review is Schedule B-II. This section lists out the exceptions to coverage provided by the title policy. There are two types of exceptions that will be listed in this section. The first type is the general exceptions. These exceptions are in every title commitment and can often be removed if certain actions are taken. The other type of exceptions are the specific exceptions. These are exceptions that are specifically connected to the property in the transaction. One example of a specific exception would be a prior mortgage on the property. Assuming the mortgage would be satisfied at closing, this exception would then be removed from the title commitment. Because these exceptions can cause a lack of coverage in the future if an issue arises, it is crucial that the buyer review each exception.

Taking into consideration the importance of the title commitment in the execution of a real estate transaction, it will be helpful to seek the advice of a real estate attorney prior to closing. A real estate attorney will be able to review each section of the title commitment and determine if there are any discrepancies or items that need to be revised. Moreover, an attorney will be able to analyze each exception to the title policy and advise you on the impact each exception has on the property. Overall, seeking the help of a real estate attorney to review the title commitment prior to closing can facilitate a smooth transaction and prevent future issues that may arise as a result of an overlooked item on the title commitment.

 

Wisconsin Expands Ability to Activate Powers of Attorney for Health Care

Wisconsin Expands Ability to Activate Powers of Attorney for Health Care

Wisconsin is facing a shortage of primary care doctors, particularly in rural areas. According to a report by the Wisconsin Council on Medical Education and Workforce, there is expected to be a shortfall of 745 primary care doctors by 2035, in large part due to upcoming retirements. While the medical field may seem separate and distinct from the legal field, this looming shortage is already impacting certain laws.

The Wisconsin legislature enacted 2019 Wisconsin Act 90 on February 5, 2020. The Act expands the provider types that can determine whether a person is incapacitated for purposes of activating a power of attorney for health care, declare that a patient has a terminal illness or is in a persistent vegetative state for purposes of invoking a living will.

Under prior law, an incapacity determination could only be made by two physicians, or by one physician and one licensed psychologist. Under the new law, an incapacity determination may be made by two physicians, or by one physician and one of the following individuals: i) a licensed psychologist; ii) a registered nurse who is currently certified as a nurse practitioner by a national certifying body approved by the Board of Nursing; or iii) a licensed physician assistant (PA) who a physician responsible for overseeing the PA’s practice affirms is competent to conduct evaluations of the capacity of patients to manage health care decisions. The new law does not affect the other applicable criteria for determining that a person is incapacitated, including that the providers must still personally examine the patient and cannot be a relative or have a claim to a portion of the person’s estate.

According to State Representative Patrick Snyder, who helped introduce the legislation, several communities in Wisconsin depend solely on advanced practice clinicians, like PAs and registered nurses, for their care because the closest physicians are many miles away and, for these communities, and others that rely heavily on advanced practice clinicians, the Act will allow for a continuity of care that was prohibited under prior law.

If you previously signed a power of attorney for health care or living will under the prior law, you may consider having your document reviewed and potentially updated if you wish to take advantage of this recent law change.

 

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