Picking up from last week in this three-part series, this post covers the guardianship process. Key points are the complexity involved (this involves the court system) and the ongoing reporting requirements. Remembering some basic points of guardianship from last week — 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”).
In most states, anyone interested in the proposed ward’s well-being can request a guardianship. An attorney is usually retained to file a petition for a hearing in the probate court in the proposed ward’s county of residence. Protections for the proposed ward vary greatly from state to state, with some simply requiring that notice of the proceeding be provided and others requiring the proposed ward’s presence at the hearing. The proposed ward is usually entitled to legal representation at the hearing, and the court will appoint an attorney if the allegedly incapacitated person cannot afford a lawyer.
At the hearing, the court attempts to determine if the proposed ward is incapacitated and, if so, to what extent the individual requires assistance. If the court determines that the proposed ward is indeed incapacitated, the court then decides if the person seeking the role of guardian will be a responsible guardian.
Who Can Serve as Guardian
A guardian can be any competent adult — the ward’s spouse, another family member, a friend, a neighbor, or a professional guardian (an unrelated person who has received special training). A competent individual may nominate a proposed guardian through a pre-need guardianship declaration in case she ever needs a guardian.
The guardian need not be a person at all — it can be a non-profit agency or a public or private corporation. If a person is found to be incapacitated and a suitable guardian cannot be found, courts in many states can appoint a public guardian, a publicly financed agency that serves this purpose. In naming someone to serve as a guardian, courts give first consideration to those who play a significant role in the ward’s life — people who are both aware of and sensitive to the ward’s needs and preferences. If two individuals wish to share guardianship duties, courts can name co-guardians.
Courts often give guardians broad authority to manage the ward’s affairs. In addition to lacking the power to decide how money is spent or managed, where to live, and what medical care he or she should receive, wards also may not have the right to vote, marry or divorce, or carry a driver’s license. Guardians are expected to act in the best interests of the ward, but given the guardian’s often broad authority, there is the potential for abuse. For this reason, courts hold guardians accountable for their actions to ensure that they don’t take advantage of or neglect the ward.
The guardian of the property inventories the ward’s property, invests the ward’s funds so that they can be used for the ward’s support, and files regular, detailed reports with the court. A guardian of the property also must obtain court approval for certain financial transactions. Guardians must file an annual account of how they have handled the ward’s finances. In some states guardians must also give an annual report on the ward’s status. Guardians must offer proof that they made adequate residential arrangements for the ward, that they provided sufficient health care and treatment services, and that they made available educational and training programs, as needed. Guardians who cannot prove that they have adequately cared for the ward may be removed and replaced by another guardian.
How to Avoid Guardianship
None of us can be sure we won’t suffer a mental incapacity one day. But that does not mean our loved ones have to go through this rigorous guardianship process. Next week, I’ll discuss the alternatives to guardianship and how you can engage in planning today to avoid that in the future. 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.