What is a Ward of the Court?

What is a Ward of the Court?

People essentially become wards of the court because they are unable to take care of themselves at some level and require certain legal protections.

This legal designation is also commonly called being a “ward of the state” and may apply to minors as well as adults. It’s also important to understand that a ward is not necessarily someone who has no family or support system within the community. Rather, they may require enhanced protections beyond what a legal guardian or family can provide. Other salient issues involve otherwise responsible legal guardians not wanting to bear the sometimes onerous financial burden associated with minor children or adults who unable to maintain self-care.

To say that the process and issues involving wards of the court are complicated would be something of an understatement. In an effort to provide loved ones with a working understanding of what it means to be a ward of the court, we hope the following overview proves useful.

How Does One Become an Adult Ward of the Court?

As we are acutely aware, not all adults have the ability to care for themselves adequately. Whether that stems from a disability, age, or illness, the courts can provide enhanced protections to ensure ongoing treatment, care, and financial oversight, among other items.

An adult ward of the court may have no remaining family members to step up as a legal guardian. Others may indeed have loved ones that are willing to act as their guardian but are not necessarily in a position to shoulder burdens such as financial support as well as caregiving. Still, other wards have court-appointed guardians connected with government agencies. These professional organizations may include the following.

  • Social Services
  • Human Services
  • Mental Health Agencies
  • Health Departments
  • Departments for Aging Adults

In order to become an adult ward of the court, that person must undergo a review process that may include assessments by medical and psychiatric professionals who support a claim the person is not competent to successfully maintain minimum health, safety, and financial standards. In the vast majority of cases, the courts will hold a hearing and secure written and oral testimony from experts, friends, and family members, among others. If deemed incompetent, the individual may enjoy the legal protections afforded by the court.

It’s also important to keep in mind that the courts do not necessarily impose guardianships. People who recognize they are seeing the signs of diminished capacity to maintain their health, well-being, and estates, can work with an attorney to voluntarily petition the court. In these instances, the potential ward of the court can have substantial input about the parameters of the guardianship and who the court appoints to that station.

In other cases, a friend or family member can petition the court on someone’s behalf, even in cases of involuntary guardianships. These cases can be emotionally taxing for family members, particularly when your loved one does not recognize their failing state. In these involuntary cases, the ward generally has little or no input about issues such as oversight of their well-being or the designated guardian. The court imposes what it believes is in the best interest of the ward.

What Does an Adult Guardian Do?

A court-appointed guardian is often tasked with overseeing healthcare and financial planning decisions. It’s not uncommon for the guardian to work closely with the ward through the process and move forward with the person’s full consent. These are common items a guardian works with the ward.  

  • Place of Residency
  • Mental Health Treatments
  • Physical Health Treatments
  • Bill Payments
  • Personal Affairs
  • Estate Planning
  • Last Will & Testament

If the ward has significant financial resources, the court may also appoint a conservator with some expertise to manage their estate. The guardian, on the other hand, advocates on behalf of the ward’s best interest in all other matters and generally submits periodic reports to the court.

How Long Can an Adult Remain a Ward of the Court?

Once a person has been deemed a ward of the court, that legal designation is usually only removed in the event they are no longer hindered. In some instances, the court may dismiss the guardianship because it’s in the person’s best interest. Although the latter tends not to be the norm, people who have recovered from a physical or mental health condition may see the ward designation lifted, and the guardianship discontinued. In the overwhelming majority of cases, wards of the court remain so until they pass away.

When Does A Minor Child Become A Ward of the Court?

When children are deemed wards of the court, the circumstances and prevailing issues can be quite different. For example, when the court appoints a legal guardian, it is more often not the case that they become financially responsible for support. In these cases, guardians are also not generally liable for other expenses associated with the child. However, when children become wards of the court, parental rights are usually terminated.

This is an important distinction for minors and parents alike to understand. That’s because there are instances when the court may assume authority over the child even though the minor remains in the custody of a parent. In this scenario, the court has asserted some degree of authority but has not yet gone as far as to remove parental oversight. In such cases, minors are not necessarily a legal ward of the court.

That same reasoning holds true in cases when minors work with an attorney to successfully petition the court to be declared emancipated. Although such minors are no longer under the legal control or protection of a parent or guardian, they are not automatically under the court’s protection either. Therefore, they do not meet the legal standard of a ward of the court.

Another compelling situation is when minors commit crimes and are incarcerated. The mere fact that the state has assumed control and placed the child in a correctional facility does not necessarily make them a ward of the court. As long as a parent or appointed guardian is in place, the minor may not be considered a ward.  

What Triggers A Minor Becoming a Ward of the Court?

Like the adult process, there are a number of ways that a child can go from being the responsibility of a parent to a ward of the court. Sadly, ranked among the more prevalent pathways, the court places children under its protection when they are neglected, abused, or otherwise mistreated. We hear and read about many extreme cases in the media of children being subjected to squalor, malnutrition, and other horrors. The legal protections of the court are often inserted until the children can be treated, and a suitable living environment can be secured.

In other cases, the court may proactively take control over wayward youths. It’s not unusual for a minor with a growing criminal record, history of drug and alcohol abuse, or mental health issues to be removed from a parent’s custody. Wards may be placed in institutional settings that include rehabilitative programs. The court’s goal in cases of wayward youths is to redirect negative behaviors and integrate them as productive members of the community.

There are also cases when parents are physically or mentally unable to provide the stable homelife a child requires. Whether that evolves from diminished physical health or an emerging mental condition, parents have the option to work with an attorney and petition the court to place their child under its protection. Parents are often required to sign over custody in voluntary petitions. In these types of cases, parents can have significant input regarding placement and the future well-being of their child. It’s also not unusual for parents to regain their capacity to care for a child and ask the court to reinstate their rights.

Protect Your Loved One’s Rights & Interests

If you or a loved one is facing the possibility of becoming a ward of the court, or you fear for how guardianship will transpire in a known or unknown future scenario, it’s imperative that you engage the best legal counsel possible. The legal hurdles, hearings, and documentation required to negotiate the process tend to be highly complicated. And, missteps can cause unexpected setbacks and a less than desirable result. Whether you are considering an adult wardship, or want to protect a minor child’s future, Lilac City Law has the experience and compassion to diligently guide you through the process and get the outcome you deserve.

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What to Know During the Guardianship Nomination Process

What to Know During the Guardianship Nomination Process

If something happened to you and you were unable to take care of yourself or your children, who would step in? Ideally, it would be someone you chose. Nominating a guardian before something happens allows you to do just that.

What Is a Guardian?

Think back to school forms asking for a parent or legal guardian. A guardian is a person who takes care of someone else when that person is incompetent to handle their affairs on their own. This could be due to a serious injury or illness. When minor children are involved, they may need a guardian if both of their parents are incapacitated or pass away.

A guardianship will generally cover similar decisions to what a parent could make for a child — even when the person needing a guardian is an adult. This may include medical decisions and, for minors, other life decisions such as where to go to school.

Guardianships can also cover managing the person’s finances, but finances are sometimes broken up into a separate conservatorship. Exactly what a guardian or conservator can do will be spelled out when the court approves the guardianship or conservatorship.

How Is a Guardian Different From Godparents?

When your children were born or shortly after, you may have appointed godparents. Godparents are often expected to step in and take charge of the children if something happens to a parent, but appointing a godparent is largely a religious or ceremonial action. Godparents aren’t directly recognized under the law.

To give a godparent the legal authority to act, and avoid conflicts with other family members who may wish to step in instead, you will need to go through the legal process of appointing the godparents as guardians, trustees, or other legal roles.

How Is a Guardian Different from a Power of Attorney?

A power of attorney might grant all of the powers that a guardian can exercise. The difference is mainly timing. You sign a power of attorney when you have full mental capacity. A guardian is only appointed after you’re incapacitated. Part of the guardianship appointment process can include reviewing the wishes you specified when you still had full mental capacity. However, a power of attorney cannot be executed if you have diminished mental capacity, and it may be voided if a court finds you lacked capacity when you signed it.

Because a power of attorney can be limited in scope based on how you had your lawyer word it, it may not cover all of the actions that need to be taken on your behalf. In those situations, a guardian would be appointed to fill in the gaps.

How Do You Select a Guardian for Yourself?

Like a person dying without a complete will, the law has default rules for how to select a guardian based on relationships and willingness to serve. The court will also consider the ability to do the job of each person who wants to be the guardian. This can lead to serious family conflicts and large legal bills when two family members wish to serve as the guardian and can’t come to an agreement.

To avoid these types of problems, you can nominate a guardian. The judge isn’t bound to follow your nomination but will give it great weight and will only overrule your nomination with a strong cause. The process is called nomination of guardian, and you can select any adult of sound mind. Like a will, the judge will review your selection to ensure you were mentally fit to make the decision and weren’t under duress or tricked into doing so.

How Do You Select a Guardian for Your Children?

The process for nominating a guardian for your children is similar to nominating a guardian for yourself. The only real difference is that it’s even more important to make your decision in advance so that your children can have a sense of stability and not be left hanging during long court battles.

You should, of course, also talk to potential guardians to see if they are willing to take on this responsibility. However, being nominated does not obligate the person to accept the judge’s appointment if the time ever comes. Therefore, you probably want to select at least one alternate.

Do You Need a Guardian If You Left a Trust for Your Children?

You may have set up a trust to provide for your children financially in case something happened to you. The trustee is then able to manage their financial affairs in accordance with the trust.

However, someone still needs to take custody of the children to manage their daily lives and important life decisions. This is where you need to nominate a guardian, and your estate planning documents should lay out the responsibilities of both the trustee and the guardian.

Who Supervises a Guardian?

Once appointed, a guardian must make regular reports to the court. This includes financial information as well as other major decisions. Other family members can also go to court to contest the guardianship if they believe the guardian is doing something improper.

What If There Is a Conflict Between a Guardianship and a Power of Attorney or Trust?

There should be no conflicts with a guardianship and power of attorney or trust because the court should appoint the guardian in consideration of other estate planning documents. The guardian should only carry out duties not already provided for. To avoid confusion, you should attach your other estate planning documents to your nomination of guardianship to ensure that the judge will be aware of their existence. If a power of attorney or trustee believes a guardian was appointed improperly or is going beyond their role, they can contest those actions in court.

Are There Downsides to Being a Guardian?

Whether a guardianship is for an adult or minor children, being appointed as a guardian is a major responsibility. Like a parent, it can mean making tough choices and sometimes needing to put the other person’s wellbeing before the guardian’s own. The nominated guardian will also need to go to court during the nomination process and will need to make ongoing reports to the court as long as they remain guardian. Being a guardian is a lifetime appointment unless the judge appoints someone else.

Does a Guardian Have to be Local?

A guardian can theoretically live anywhere in the world. However, the judge will want to make sure that the guardian will be able to effectively perform their responsibilities without being unduly impacted by long-distance. For minor children, since they will often go to live with the guardian, the judge may also consider how a move would impact their lives and their access to other family members. You can and should include your wishes on these issues in your planning documents so the judge can understand the choices you made and to avoid conflicts between family members.

If you’re relying on a long-distance guardian, you should also consider who will act in a sudden emergency such as you being rushed to a hospital. You may want to have an alternate power of attorney that gives a more nearby family member the power to act until your guardian is able to step in.

Who Pays for Legal Fees During Guardianship Proceedings?

Your appointed guardian should understand that they don’t have to take on legal costs. If you have liquid assets, the court will pay the attorneys reasonable fees from your funds — just like any other of your expenses would be handled. If you don’t have liquid assets, there is a special guardianship fund established by the government. In no cases does the appointed guardian pay for court fees, although you may wish to set aside money to cover other expenses they may face while acting as a guardian.

Please note that this is separate from creating your nomination of guardian documents. Those costs would be arranged between you and your attorney just like any other legal work.

How Quickly Can a Guardian Be Appointed?

Even for a nominated guardian who isn’t contested, the court process is usually measured in weeks if not months. During an emergency situation, your family could petition the court to appoint a temporary guardian pending full court review. This person could potentially be the guardian you nominated.

In more urgent circumstances, such as an emergency room doctor needing an immediate decision, any power of attorney or living will documents that you created and are readily available will be used. Otherwise, the hospital or other entity would attempt to contact your next of kin and follow their authority in accordance with local law.

Talk to an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney

To learn more about how nominating a guardian fits in with your estate planning strategy or to start the nomination process, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney at Lilac City Law today.

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