When an older adult is not able to think clearly, their capability to make informed and meaningful decisions will be affected. The onset of Alzheimer’s disease or other related dementias, stroke, brain injury, mental illness, or other serious issues can be the cause. If the person you are caring for is not able to make rational, sound-minded decisions about their health care, finances, or other aspects of life, seeking legal guardianship might be necessary for their safety and quality of life.
What Is Guardianship for Elderly Individuals?
Guardianship is a legal option in the event that an adult has not appointed a healthcare proxy or power of attorney (POA) and they are not capable of doing so anymore because of advancing age, illness, or disability. Even if they named a POA, guardianship might still be necessary especially if their POA is not durable, meaning it ends when they are incapacitated. The most common scenario is when family caregivers seek guardianship for adults with dementia and they have not made legal preparations for the future.
The definition for the term, guardianship, varies between states. In some states, guardianship gives the appointed person control over where the incapacitated individual lives, what health care they can receive, and how their daily needs are met. On the other hand, conservatorship allows the appointed person to handle the incapacitated individual’s financial decisions, such as paying bills, managing investments, and budgeting. These terms are often used interchangeably.
In order to act as someone’s legal guardian or conservator, the person petitioning for guardianship must go to court and have the incapacitated individual declared as incompetent based on an expert’s findings. If the incapacitated individual is legally ruled as incompetent and the petitioner is a fit candidate to serve as a guardian, then the court transfers the responsibility for managing finances, living arrangements, medical decisions, or any combination of these to the petitioner.
The entire process often takes a decent amount of time and money. Family members can disagree about if guardianship is necessary or who should be assigned as a guardian. It can be painful, prolonged, and costly.
What Is a Court-Appointed Guardian?
A court-appointed guardian (or conservator) has court-ordered authority to handle an incapacitated individual’s affairs. They have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the individual they are appointed to serve. Unfortunately, it strips the incapacitated individual of many rights. However, it may be the only way to obtain the legal authority to make important decisions on their behalf.
Who Can Be a Legal Guardian?
The court will hold a hearing to decide if the person seeking guardianship is fit for the role. Their relationship, criminal background, credit history, and any potential conflicts of interest are factors that go into the court’s decision.
In the case where more than one person is petitioning for responsibility for the incapacitated individual’s needs, the court will determine who is best qualified. Sometimes one person is appointed to handle the medical decisions (aka guardianship of the person) while another is appointed to manage financial matters (aka guardianship of the property). The incapacitated individual’s preferences and previously prepared legal documents (ex: Non-durable POA, a will, or advance directive) are factors for this decision.
Most states can give preference to the incapacitated individual’s spouse, adult children, or other family members because they are most familiar with the individual’s unique needs and abilities. If a loved one is not willing or not qualified to serve as a guardian then a professional guardian or public guardian might be appointed.
When Is a Guardian Appointed?
A guardian or conservator can only be assigned if a court hears evidence that an incapacitated individual lacks mental capacity in some or all areas of their life. The court also determines that the individual can no longer make informed decisions for themselves. Allegedly incapacitated individuals (not deemed incapacitated) have the right to an attorney and the right to object to the appointment of their guardian or conservator.
In rare cases, if an elder’s health and/or finances are in jeopardy, emergency guardianship may be granted right away. Be warned, guardianship is a very serious intervention and should only be considered as a last resort.
A Guardian’s Role:
Whenever possible, the guardian or conservator must find the opinion of the incapacitated individual and can only act in areas authorized by the court. After a thorough investigation, the court can rule if guardians can be given limited or broad authority. Sometimes the court delegates responsibilities to several parties. In general, the court needs to see reports and financial accounting at regular intervals or whenever important decisions are made. For some large decisions, prior court approval can be required.
Do Guardians Receive Compensation?
All court-appointed guardians are entitled to reasonable compensation for their services. When a family guardian (a spouse, family member, or friend) is appointed, they usually do not charge the incapacitated individual for their services. If a private guardian is appointed, they are paid directly from the incapacitated individual’s estate if they can afford to. If compensation is provided, the compensation amount must be approved by the court, and the guardian must carefully account for all their services, the time their tasks require, and any associated out-of-pocket costs. Public guardians are appointed to incapacitated individuals who do not have family or friends to be their guardians or the resources to hire a professional guardian. They are funded by public money, like government funds and charitable contributions.
To learn more about the legal process of seeking guardianship or conservatorship in your state, it’s best to consult a lawyer.