If an adult becomes mentally incapacitated and is incapable of making responsible decisions, the court will appoint a substitute decision maker, often called a "guardian," but in some states called a "conservator" or other term. Guardianship is a legal relationship between a competent adult (the "guardian") and a person who because of incapacity is no longer able to take care of his or her own affairs (the "ward").
If you have been appointed guardian, the following are things you need to know:
- Read the court order. The court appoints the guardian and sets up your powers and duties. You can be authorized to make legal, financial, and health care decisions for the ward. Depending on the terms of the guardianship and state practices, you may or may not have to seek court approval for various decisions. If you aren't sure what you are allowed to do, consult with a lawyer in your state.
- Fiduciary duty. You have what's called a "fiduciary duty” to your ward, which is an extremely high standard. You are legally required to act in the best interest of your ward at all times and manage your ward's money and property carefully. With that in mind, it is imperative that you keep your finances separate from your ward's finances. In addition, you should never use the ward's money to give (or lend) money to someone else or for someone else's benefit (or your own benefit) without approval of the court. Finally, as part of your fiduciary duty you must maintain good records of everything you receive or spend. Keep all your receipts and a detailed list of what the ward's money was spent on.
- File reports on time. The court order should specify what reports you are required to file. The first report is usually an inventory of the ward's property. You then may have to file yearly accountings with the court detailing what you spent and received on behalf of the ward. Finally, after the ward dies or the guardianship ends, you will need to file a final accounting.
- Consult the ward. As much as possible you should include the ward in your decision-making. Communicate what you are doing and try to determine what your ward would like done.
- Don't limit social interaction. Guardians should not limit a ward's interaction with family and friends unless it would cause the ward substantial harm. Some states have laws in place requiring the guardian to allow the ward to communicate with loved ones. Social interaction is usually beneficial to an individual's well-being and sense of self-worth. If the ward has to move, try to keep the ward near loved ones.
For a detailed guide from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on being a guardian, click here.