How Does Guardianship Work?

For family members of the estimated 6.5 million dementia patients in the U.S., it is crucial to understand whether guardianship may be an option for their loved one. A recent article from Next Avenue titled “Thinking of Becoming a Guardian?” explains how the guardianship process works and what factors go into the decision-making process.

Guardianship is the position of being responsible for someone else. State courts usually appoint a guardian to make decisions for a person, if the court finds that person to be incapacitated or unable to make safe and reasonable decisions for themselves. People who are placed under guardianship, known as “wards,” often lose their independence in making financial, legal and health care decisions.

If full guardianship is awarded, the person cannot make decisions about whether they may vote, marry, where they live, or make their own end-of-life decisions.

Two tasks that are evaluated when considering guardianship are a person’s ability to manage personal finances and to take medications as prescribed.

The court may call on a geriatrician or psychiatrist to evaluate the person’s functional behavior, cognitive function, disabling conditions and ability to meet their essential needs.

There are benefits to guardianship for someone who is not able to care for themselves. It ideally creates a safety net for a person who cannot make informed decisions for themselves.

this, of course, assumes that the guardian is honest and accountable, which is not always the case. The inconsistencies plaguing the guardianship system include minimum standards for guardians, lack of regular independent reviews of the need for guardianship and lack of educational requirements for guardians.

Once guardianship is assigned, there is a tendency for the person to become lost when no follow-up is done. The very same person who lacks capacity to care for themselves is not going to be able to advocate for themselves, contact an attorney or access funds for court proceedings.

There is also a tendency to assign full guardianship for a person, rather than less restrictive alternatives.

There are alternatives, but they require planning and discussion. More than 40% of Americans have not discussed their wishes for end-of-life care with their loved ones, according to an article in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Families should have a conversation at the first sign of memory loss or when preparing for retirement regarding wishes for end-of-life care and write them down as part of an Advanced Directive—also known as a Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney—when preparing their estate plan.

Another important document, although not legally binding, is a “Value History,” where you share your values and beliefs as they may impact care choices.

Designate a Power of Attorney and list two or even three back-up candidates. This person will be responsible for financial, legal and personal matters, avoiding the need for guardianship.

Appointing a family member or friend as a guardian is the ideal solution. However, there are instances when the best person to be a guardian is not a family member, but a court-appointed outsider. This relieves the family of being the ones who need to inform a person suffering from dementia with the news of having to move into a nursing home facility or sifting through financial records to learn that the family home is in foreclosure. The family can focus on being supportive and loving, while the guardian deals with the sometimes harsh realities of the person’s life.

Speak with your estate planning attorney to learn about how guardianship works, and whether it may be the right move for your family.

Reference: Next Avenue (Dec. 23, 2022) “Thinking of Becoming a Guardian?”