If an adult becomes mentally incapacitated and is incapable of making responsible decisions, the court will appoint a substitute decision maker, known as a guardian or conservator (and in some cases both). A Guardianship and conservatorship is a legal relationship between a competent adult (the "guardian" or "conservator") and a person who because of incapacity is no longer able to take care of his or her own affairs (the "incapacitated person").
If you have been appointed guardian or conservator, the following are things you need to know:
- Read the court order. The court appoints the guardian or conservator and sets up your powers and duties. You can be authorized to make legal, financial, and health care decisions for the incapacitated person. 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 incapacitated person at all times and manage your incapacitated person's money and property carefully. With that in mind, it is imperative that you keep your finances separate from your incapacitated person's finances. In addition, you should never use the incapacitated person'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 incapacitated person'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 incapacitated person's property. You then may have to file yearly accountings with the court detailing what you spent and received on behalf of the incapacitated person. Finally, after the incapacitated person dies or the guardianship ends, you will need to file a final accounting.
- Consult the ward. As much as possible you should include the incapacitated person in your decision-making. Communicate what you are doing and try to determine what your incapacitated person would like done.
- Don't limit social interaction. Guardians should not limit a incapacitated person'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 incapacitated person to communicate with loved ones. Social interaction is usually beneficial to an individual's well-being and sense of self-worth. If the incapacitated person has to move, try to keep the incapacitated person near loved ones.