Guardianship, also, referred to as conservatorship, is a legal process, utilized when a person can no longer make or communicate safe or sound decisions about his/her person and/or property or has become susceptible to fraud or undue influence. Because establishing a guardianship may remove considerable rights from an individual, it should only be considered after alternatives to guardianship have proven ineffective or are unavailable.
A good guardian will take into account the wishes and desires of the ward when making decisions about residence, medical treatments, and end-of life decisions. The courts will remove only those rights that the proposed ward is incapable of handling.
Because establishing guardianship is a legal process that involves the removal of the individual’s rights, considerable due process protection often exists when the guardianship is established.
Individual rights removed and due process rights may vary from state to state, the final authority is the state statues where the person with the disability lives. In any type of guardianship the court may limit the guardian’s authority. The guiding principle in all guardianship is that of least intrusive measures to assure as much autonomy as possible. The guardian’s authority is defined by the court and the guardian may not operate outside that authority. A guardian may be a family member or friend or a public or private entity appointed by the court.
The professional guardian does not take the place of a family member, although the guardian may form an emotional bond with the incapacitated person. The professional guardian will coordinate and monitor professional services needed by the incapacitated person, such as selecting a caretaker, in-home care, and other services.
Funds that belong to the ward remain the property of that person, and do not become property of the guardian. All funds are accounted for and kept separate from the guardian’s personal funds. The estate guardian acts on behalf of the incapacitated person only to the extent of the person’s assets. For each person that a professional guardian serves, the guardian stands ready to give an accurate accounting of those funds to the court. The professional guardian is an advocate and acts on behalf of the incapacitated person only to the extent of the court order.
The goal of effective guardianship is to be able to restore the rights of the individual who, for whatever reason, has had some of them removed by a court after due process. It is true that in many instances once a guardianship has been initiated by a court, it is in place until the incapacitated person dies. However, an annual review and assessment will monitor the need for maintaining or terminating a guardianship, and alert the court to a potential restoration of some or all of the incapacitated person’s rights.
This brief summary does not attempt to cover all of the aspects of guardianship. Especially in your local area where the law and local court rules may vary from county to county, or from state to state, it is a good idea to make inquires as to what is appropriate for your specific circumstances. Consult your local professional elder law advocate, or contact the National Guardianship Association.