When a person under the age of 18 loses their parents, they may need a legal guardian. The guardian, a person appointed by a court, has the responsibility to house, feed, care for, educate, and raise the young person into an adult, like a parent. While not ideal, a legal guardian can take on the role of a parent and help the young person grow into a strong and well-adjusted adult.
Similarly, when an adult has a physical or cognitive disability and is unable to care for themselves, they may need a legal guardian. These adult guardianships, called a Conservatorship, can even be placed over a previously healthy and able-bodied person due to progressive dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or other conditions causing a loss of ability to care for themselves.
When a Conservatorship is necessary it can be an extremely difficult and expensive process for any family. First, the need for a Conservatorship will likely arise during an already stressful time, such as when the vulnerable person needs to make important legal decisions, make large or long-term healthcare decisions, or gets behind on managing their bills and personal finances. Second, a Conservatorship is overseen by a court, which will always move slower than needs dictate due to bureaucratic processes and legal notice requirements. Third, the courts require detailed paperwork both before and during the Conservatorship, and many details of the vulnerable person’s family life and finances may become accessible in public records.
None of us would choose to have a guardian appointed and overseen by a court given the choice, but many people have loved ones who are aging, or who have conditions which may affect their long-term ability to care for themselves. Even if we are healthy and have no limitations today, anyone may suffer an accident or life event which subjects them to a Conservatorship, so how can we avoid this painful, costly process?
The answer is simple. Proactive estate planning can protect anyone from the need for a court supervised Conservatorship. A durable power of attorney and an advance healthcare directive allow any person to designate the person or people to handle their legal affairs and obligations without the approval or supervision of a court.
Estate planning is not only documents directing where our property goes when we die, it is also the process of determining who should act on our behalf while we are alive, but unable to care for ourselves. Even if you are unconcerned with what happens to your property after you pass away, estate planning can shield you and your loved ones from arduous delays, expensive court proceedings, and involving a court in the most intimate decisions about your life and wellbeing.