Older people may need a trusted individual to step in and manage their affairs, should they ever suffer debilitating health problems like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and strokes.
Guardianship can provide protection and assistance with certain decisions for an incapacitated individual — known as a “ward” — who may become unable to make decisions or advocate for themselves. In appointing guardians, courts can restrict a ward’s rights in some circumstances. Wards may lose the right to:
A guardian should make decisions that benefit the ward. Some guardians fail to act in their wards’ best interests, preventing them from seeing family and friends, making unsound healthcare decisions, and neglecting to protect them from harm.
Although the guardian becomes the primary decision maker, the person under guardianship also retains many essential freedoms. Elders with guardians and their family members should know these rights so that they can respond if control becomes overly restrictive.
State laws govern guardianships, and many states have acted to protect the rights of wards. The American Bar Association reported that, since 2015, 18 states have passed laws protecting the rights of people in the custody of guardians, while other states have strengthened their laws.
Many states have passed versions of a Guardianship or Ward’s Bill of Rights, with rights including:
Special considerations arise for wards residing in nursing homes. The federal Nursing Home Reform Law governs skilled nursing facilities receiving federal funding and establishes the rights of nursing home residents, including the rights to:
Whether nursing home residents with legal guardians retain these freedoms or whether these rights transfer to the guardian depends on state law.
The liberty to visit with family and others and participate in social groups is of particular concern for wards who receive care in skilled nursing facilities, as nursing homes may rely on guardians’ authority to prevent residents from accessing friends and family.
Even after a court has ruled a person disabled and assigned a guardian, the person retains the right to petition the court to terminate the guardianship. For example, an individual may recover from illnesses that once rendered them unable to handle their affairs and opt to end the guardianship arrangement.
Abuse by a guardian is illegal. Those suffering abuse by a guardian and their family should understand their rights and take action to protect themselves or their loved ones.
For guidance on guardianship, consult with a qualified elder law attorney in your area.