Guardianship is a legal means of protecting children and "incompetent adults" (in legal terms, adults who cannot take care of themselves, make decisions that are in their own best interest, or handle their assets due to a physical or mental disability). When the court determines that a person is incapable of handling either their personal or financial affairs a guardian will be appointed.
The subject of guardianship for an adult child with disabilities is of concern to most parents. Parents of children with severe disabilities often assume that they can continue to be their adult child's legal guardian during the child's entire life.
Although it may be obvious to a parent that a child does not have the capacity to make informed decisions, legally an adult is presumed competent unless otherwise determined to be incompetent after a competency proceeding. Once an individual reaches the age of 18, the parent is no longer the individual's legal guardian. Parents need to explore legal options available to protect their child from unscrupulous individuals who may exploit their child's inability to make informed choices.
Some things to know when considering guardianship:
a. A guardian of the person is responsible for monitoring the care of the person with disabilities to ensure that the individual is receiving proper care and supervision. The guardian is responsible for decisions regarding most medical care, education, and vocational issues.
b. A guardian of the estate or conservatorship should be considered for a person with disabilities who is unable to manage their finances and have income from sources other than benefit checks, or have other assets and/or property.
c. A guardianship may be limited to certain areas of decision making, such as decisions about medical treatment or medications in order to allow the individual to continue making their own decisions in all other areas.
d. A temporary guardian or conservator may be appointed in an emergency situation when certain decisions must be made immediately.
If an individual with a disability is capable of making some but not all decisions, one or more of the alternatives to guardianship discussed here should be considered. These alternatives to guardianship are listed from least restrictive to most restrictive:
1. A joint bank account can be created to prevent rash expenditures. Arrangements can be made with most banks for benefits checks, such as Social Security or SSI payments, to be sent directly to the bank for deposit. (Remember to keep this account balance below $2,000.)
2. A representative payee can be named to manage the funds of a person with a disability who receives benefits checks from Social Security, Railroad Retirement, or the Veterans Benefits Administration. Benefits checks are sent to the representative payee.
3. A durable power of attorney (POA) for property is a legal document that grants one person the legal authority to handle the financial affairs of another. Generally, the use of a POA should be used when the individual with disabilities has the capacity to make basic meaningful decisions and does not require full guardianship but may not be able to make complex financial decisions without support.
4. A durable POA for health care, also known as a health care proxy, should be considered for individuals who are presently capable of making decisions about their health care and wish to anticipate possibly future incompetence.
5. An appointment of advocate and authorization allows a person with a disability to designate an agent to advocate on his or her behalf with administrative agencies such as the state department of cognitive disability, the department of mental health services, or the department of medical assistance.
6. Trusts may be an appropriate alternative to appointment of guardian in some circumstances. A trust is a legal plan for placing funds and other assets in the control of a trustee for the benefit of an individual with a disability - or even for those with no known disability.
7. As mentioned previously, guardianship is an option for persons who, because of mental illness, developmental disability, or physical disability, lack sufficient understanding or capacity to make or communicate responsible decisions concerning their care and financial affairs. Guardians are approved and appointed by the court. Guardianships are also supervised by the court. The guardian provides a report on the status of the individual to the court annually.
In general, the guardian or conservator is responsible for handling the individual's financial resources, but is not personally financially responsible for them from his or her own resources.
This list of alternatives to guardianship is not exhaustive, but worth speaking with an attorney about. As with all legal decisions, we suggest you seek legal advice from an attorney who is knowledgeable in disability law in the individual's state of residence.