This is the first post in a series about guardianship. Over the next couple of weeks, look for two follow-ups that will further explains what’s behind this area of law.
Every adult is assumed to be capable of making his or her own decisions unless a court determines otherwise. If an adult becomes incapable of making responsible decisions due to a mental disability, the court can appoint a substitute decision maker, often called a “guardian.” (Some states use the term “conservator.”) Guardianship is a legal relationship between a competent adult (the “guardian”) and a person who because of incapacity is no longer able to take care of his or her own affairs (the “ward”).
What a Guardian Does
The guardian can be authorized to make legal, financial, and health care decisions for the ward. Depending on the terms of the guardianship and state practices, the guardian may or may not have to seek court approval for various decisions.
Some incapacitated individuals can make responsible decisions in some areas of their lives but not others. In such cases, the court may give the guardian decision making power over only those areas in which the incapacitated person is unable to make responsible decisions (a so-called “limited guardianship”). In other words, the guardian may exercise only those rights that have been removed from the ward and delegated to the guardian.
Incapacity as a Standard
The standard under which a person is deemed to require a guardian differs from state to state. In some states the standards are different, depending on whether a complete guardianship or a conservatorship over finances only is being sought. Generally a person is judged to be in need of guardianship when he or she shows a lack of capacity to make responsible decisions. A person cannot be declared incompetent simply because he or she makes irresponsible or foolish decisions, but only if the person is shown to lack the capacity to make sound decisions. For example, a person may not be declared incompetent simply because he spends money in ways that seem odd to someone else. Also, a developmental disability or mental illness is not, by itself, enough to declare a person incompetent.
Understanding the Process of Guardianship
Next week, I’ll discuss the process of guardianship and briefly discuss the reporting requirements of a guardian. McCreary Law Office does not represent clients during the process of guardianship, but the office does help clients design a plan so as to avoid the need and the expense of guardianship. Stay tuned for more about that in the final post that will follow.