Creating a plan for dealing with problems before they develop, and putting a financial power of attorney and a healthcare power of attorney in place while your loved one is still competent can prevent a lot of misunderstanding, heartache and expense. If a loved one is already at a point where he or she is unable to care for and make good decisions for themselves, and if they are no longer competent to prepare financial and health care powers of attorney, Guardianship is the legal process that you must go through to be able to make decisions for them.
Without guardianship or comprehensive powers of attorney, you will generally not be able to legally:
- Authorize their admission or discharge from a hospital or nursing home;
- Hire and fire their doctors or authorize medical treatment; or
- Use their assets to pay for their expenses and care
There are two different types of guardianship in New Jersey, the Guardianship of the Person and the Guardianship of the Estate, both of which require court appointment. The same person may serve as both types of guardian and are frequently referred to as Guardianship of the Person and Property.
Guardianship of the Person allows you to make decisions about where an incapacitated person will live, which doctors will attend to their health, and how their medical conditions will be treated. Guardianship of the Estate allows you to manage the assets and financial affairs of the incapacitated person. In many cases, this means that the primary responsibility of the Guardian of the Estate is to figure out how to best use their loved one’s financial assets to provide care for them for as long as they are in need of it.
To be appointed as a guardian, you must be able to prove to the court that a person is incapacitated, or unable to govern themselves or manage their affairs. In practice, this means that a person must be unable to make generally rational decisions about their medical care, personal care or finances. The incapacity may be caused by physical illness, mental disability, or chronic use of drugs or alcohol. For example, many of the individuals who seek guardianship are the parents of special needs children who have recently turned eighteen.
If a person is able to perform some but not all of the tasks necessary to care for himself the guardianship may be limited to the areas where help is most clearly needed. As guardianship is such a powerful appointment, a court will not order it unless it is necessary. A critical part of the procedure to assess the need for a guardian is to require affidavits from two professionals (routinely physicians or psychiatrists) confirming the person’s mental and physical condition.
You must also provide detailed information about your request to the incapacitated person and their next of kin (frequently their spouse and children, but this could also include their parents, grandparents, siblings, nieces, nephews or grandchildren depending on the situation). These individuals will then also have a chance to participate in the court process and present evidence that may either support or detract from your case.
The allegedly incapacitated person will also have a person (usually an attorney) appointed on their behalf to help ensure that their voice is heard during the court proceedings and to assist them with resisting the guardianship if that is their desire. If guardianship is awarded, a person seeking guardianship must agree to be a fiduciary of the incapacitated person, which means that they must do what is in the best interests of their ward, even if it conflicts with their own personal interests.
To help confirm that guardians are honoring that commitment, they must submit an annual report to the Court providing details about how the incapacitated person is doing and how their money has been spent.
Guardianship carries with it a lot of responsibility. Speaking with an estate planning attorney who routinely practices in this area of the law can help you determine if guardianship is worth pursuing and how to accomplish it in a way that will be minimally disruptive for you and your loved one.
Written by: Jessica J. Sauer, Esq. and Kevin A. Pollock, Esq., LL.M.
“To care for those who once cared for us is one of the highest honors.”-Tia Walker