What Does it Mean to be a Ward of the State?

What does it mean to be a ward of the state? When an adult is unable to care for themselves due to disability or disease, someone else has to manage their affairs. This is often accomplished by appointing a guardian. When no family member is available to become the guardian, the adult who needs care may become a ward of the state.

What is a Ward of the State?

A ward of the state is a person under the care of the state through an appointed guardian. The guardian is responsible for major medical, financial, and other decisions with input from the ward according to the ward’s ability. Once a guardian is appointed, they have similar duties and powers to a guardian who is a family member or chosen by the family.

How Does Someone Become a Ward of the State?

A judge decides whether someone should become a ward of the state. In some situations, the potential ward may make the request if they recognize that they are not fully capable of managing their affairs. A family member, medical professional, or almost anyone else with a relationship to the potential ward can also make the petition. The court will hold a hearing to review the reasons for the petition, hear from the ward if possible, hear from anyone else who may have knowledge of the situation, and obtain reports from medical professionals or social workers as applicable.

A person may only become a ward of the state if the judge finds that they are in fact unable to manage their own affairs in whole or in part. The preference is to appoint a family member as guardian, but there may not always be a family member who is both willing and able to take on the role. When no family member is available, the judge appoints a state guardian and the person becomes a ward of the state.

How Long Does a Person Remain a Ward of the State?

In many situations, a person becomes a ward of the state permanently, because there are only limited circumstances where the status is removed. One is if the ward recovers and is again able to manage his own affairs. The other is if a family member or other person becomes able to take on the role of guardian and the change is in the best interests of the ward. Both of these situations are reviewed in a hearing to terminate ward of the state status.

What Does the Guardian Do?

The guardian is responsible for all medical, financial, living arrangement, and other major decisions subject to the court order. For example, the court may appoint a separate conservator to manage the ward’s finances. The ward may also retain control over certain decisions. For other decisions, the guardian should consider the ward’s input but also that it may not be in the ward’s best interests to follow that input depending on the situation. A guardian does not perform daily tasks like an in-home caretaker or nurse would but is responsible for overseeing any required care such as by hiring an appropriate caretaker.

Is the State Financially Responsible for a Ward?

Becoming a ward of the state does not mean receiving financial assistance from the state. In fact, the ward is responsible for not only their own costs but reasonable fees for the guardian’s services as well. If the ward has savings or other assets, the guardian is responsible for using them to the ward’s benefit with oversight from the court. Other financial resources the ward may have include wages from any job the ward is able to perform, Social Security Disability benefits, and other government assistance programs. The guardian is responsible for helping the ward manage and obtain these financial resources. The state is responsible for overseeing the guardian’s actions. Any special assistance the ward may receive due to being a ward of the state or due to their condition is separate from the legal process of becoming a ward of the estate and having a guardian appointed.

What Are the Benefits of Being a Ward of the State?

Being a ward of the state is really a last resort option. When no other options are available, the estate will take the steps needed to make sure that a person’s basic needs are met.

What are the Disadvantages to Being a Ward of the State?

The biggest disadvantage to being a ward of the state is being under the guardianship of an unknown person. Guardians are vetted, but an overworked and underfunded legal system means that things don’t always go as planned. There have been numerous complaints of financial abuse by a guardian. In some cases, this has even involved someone attempting to become someone’s guardian for the purpose of draining their assets. While these types of crimes have also been committed by related guardians, knowing who your guardian will be gives you more control over the situation as well as the family pressure to due the right thing.

Other complaints regarding guardians have included disregarding the ward’s wishes, not providing individualized solutions, not providing information to family members or the court, or inappropriately controlling or restricting relationships with others. The causes for these are varied. In some cases, a well-intended guardian is simply too overworked. In others, the guardian is more interested in collecting a check than providing the service if not trying to hide an outright financial fraud. Depending on the ward’s capacity and level of involvement from their family, if any, it can be difficult for anyone to recognize what is going on and to try to find a solution.

What are the Alternatives to Becoming a Ward of the State?

Becoming a ward of the state is sometimes unavoidable, but can be prevented in some cases with a little planning. The best alternative is to have a family member or friend who can become the guardian. Potential guardians sometimes avoid taking on the responsibility out of fear of a potential financial burden. Remember, though, that the guardian is not financially responsible for the ward. Working with an attorney or a social worker can help identify the financial resources available to the ward so that all of their expenses can be met. The guardian may also be eligible for tax benefits if they do cover some of the ward’s expenses such as allowing the ward to move in.

Preplanning is also a good alternative to becoming a ward of the state or at least to some of the potential negative outcomes. Someone with a family history of dementia or who is concerned about an accident or sudden illness may want to put medical and financial directives in place in case they lose the capacity to make decisions in the future. Any future guardian would have an obligation to follow these directives except where a judge agrees that very compelling circumstances require a change.

Can a Guardian Be Blocked or Replaced?

The court must always agree that a potential guardian would serve the best interests of the ward. A guardian may also be terminated and replaced when the judge finds it is in the best interests of the ward to do so. The ward, if able, or any person with knowledge of abuse or unsuitability may challenge the appointment of a guardian or request that a guardian be replaced. It is not required to prove that the guardian has committed any particular abuse, violated the law, or acted outside the bounds of the original court order. Those factors can influence a judge’s decision, but the fact that someone would be better suited to be the guardian is enough for a replacement. The court will hold a hearing to review the evidence, allow the guardian to respond, and make any adjustments needed.

Work With an Estate Planning Lawyer

To learn more about the process for becoming a ward of the estate, how to navigate it, or how to avoid it, talk to a local estate planning attorney today.

Contact us today to schedule a consultation.