Have you followed the disturbing news on the Britney Spears conservatorship? Maybe you read a chilling 2017 New Yorker article by Rachel Aviv about court-appointed private guardians in Nevada taking advantage of vulnerable older adults.

Conservatorships, or guardianships, are when the courts assign someone to manage the affairs for someone determined to be incapacitated.

Guardians are often family members, but there are also private and public guardians. Although most guardians try to do the job responsibly, policymakers are suggesting a number of reforms. Their concern: With the aging of the population, more older adults could end up vulnerable to abuse and exploitation when they can no longer manage their money and other affairs.

There are important steps you can take to protect yourself in case you eventually become incapacitated. Use the tools of thoughtful estate planning. Set up arrangements and protocols so, if cognitive decline sets in, other people can assure that you live the life you want.

Many people aren't planning ahead. Caring.com's 2021 Wills and Estate Planning Study found that only 44% of those surveyed 55 and over have estate-planning documents. A 2019 Merrill Lynch and Age Wave survey, "Leaving a Legacy: A Lasting Gift to Loved Ones," found 18% of those surveyed 55 and older have a will, health care directive and durable power of attorney.

You should have a will, the foundation of any estate plan. You'll want to set up an advanced directive to lay out your wishes about critical medical issues if you're unable to make decisions or communicate. You need to choose someone as your durable power of attorney to handle your financial affairs should cognitive decline occur, or you become incapacitated. For those with substantial assets, professional advisers, such as lawyers and certified financial planners, can help.

Conversations with trusted relatives, friends and, if appropriate, professional advisers are critical. It's important to include family and close friends, because they're the ones who will honor your wishes and protect your legacy. Take the time to explain the reasoning behind your decisions and get feedback from your trusted circle. They may suggest valuable modifications to your overall plans. Get everything in writing and make sure your trusted network knows where all the documents are stored that capture your estate plan.

Chris Farrell is senior economics contributor, "Marketplace, and economics commentator for Minnesota Public Radio.