Legal Issues when someone has Dementia – Difficulties with a Professional Guardian

This week’s blog continues the discussion of Legal Issues when someone has Dementia.  The introductory installment (April 30, 2015) put forth the issue of “Who can speak for someone with dementia?”  The May 14, 2015 installment discussed the situation where the person with dementia has Advance Directives in place.  The May 21, 2015 installment discussed the legal issues in determining whether a dementia sufferer can choose to have new Advance Directives prepared.  The May 30, 2015 installment discussed options in preparing a Health Care Power of Attorney.  The June 4, 2015 installment discussed how to decide whether to prepare a Living Will.  The June 11, 2015 installment discussed some of the basic issues in preparing a General Power of Attorney.  The June 18, 2015 installment discussed the importance of making the General Power of Attorney “durable.”  The June 25, 2015 installment discussed the importance of NOT making the General Power of Attorney “springing.”  The July 2, 2015 installment discussed revoking prior Powers of Attorney.  The July 9, 2015 installment discussed Do Not Resuscitate orders.  The July 16, 2015 installment discussed the Right of Disposition designation.  The July 23, 2015 installment discussed the Will (or Last Will and Testament.)  The July 31, 2015 installment discussed beneficiary designations on life insurance policies, IRAs, annuities, etc.  The August 6, 2015 installment discussed whether to pre-plan a funeral.  The August 14, 2015 installment discussed choosing a final resting place.  The August 28, 2015 installment discussed pre-planning the funeral ceremony.  The September 3, 2015 installment discussed when and how to pay for the pre-planned funeral.  The September 10, 2015 installment discussed medical insurance choices.  The September 17, 2015 installment discussed long term care insurance.  The September 24, 2015 installment discussed how an elder law attorney can help.  The October 1, 2015 installment introduced the concept of guardianship.  The October 8, 2015 installment discussed the application process for guardianship.  The October 22, 2015 installment discussed the family disputes that can arise during a Guardianship proceeding.  The November 12, 2015 installment discussed the Probate Court’s examination of the alleged incompetence of the proposed ward in a guardianship proceeding.  The November 19, 2015 installment discussed the Probate Court’s examination of “less restrictive alternatives” to guardianship.  The December 4, 2015 installment discussed the Probate Court’s examination of who should be the guardian.  The December 10, 2015 installment discussed the difficulties that a family member might face if appointed guardian.  Today’s installment will discuss the difficulties that a family might face if a professional guardian is appointed for a loved one.

When the person’s disease has taken away the decision-making ability and the person has not prepared advance directives appointing someone else to make decisions, the next legal alternative is guardianship.  To establish a guardianship, a Probate Court must determine that the proposed ward (the person with the dementia-related disease) is, in fact, incompetent (i.e., unable to handle his or her own affairs because of a mental impairment) as discussed two weeks ago.  If the court determines incompetence, the court must then determine if there is a less restrictive alternative available, as discussed last week.  If the court determines that the proposed ward is incompetent and that no less restrictive alternatives are available or will work with this proposed ward, the Probate Court must then determine who is the best available guardian. While, after the discussion in last week’s installment, a family member or friend may not wish to act as guardian, there can also be difficulties for a family if an outsider is guardian.

An outside-the-family guardian is sort of like a new family member.  Everyone has to work at the relationship.  It can’t be one-sided and be successful.  The family members (the real ones) must get used to the idea that a relative stranger will be making decisions for a loved one, OR the family members must make an effort (perhaps a great effort) to help the guardian be less of a stranger.  The guardian won’t automatically know the relationship that the family has had with the ward in the past.  Neither will the guardian automatically know the relationship that the family wishes to have with the ward going forward.  (Obviously, something has happened to the ward that has triggered the need for a guardian, and that same something that has happened to the ward will probably also affect relationships with family and friends.)

Unfortunately, to a professional guardian, the ward is part of the job.  The guardian may have several wards at the same time.  No one ward is enough to support a professional guardian.  (If a professional guardian makes enough money to support himself or herself from just one or two wards, a close examination of the guardian’s handling of the wards’ money is in order.)  Because the guardian will have several wards, a close relationship with the wards’ different families is difficult.  (That being said, many if not most wards of professional guardians have no family remaining involved in their lives.  The guardian is the closest thing that these wards have to family.)

The family may not agree with how the guardian handles the ward’s money.  In fact, the family may be uncomfortable or even outraged that some of the ward’s money is being used to pay the guardian for services.  Well, that’s just tough!  No family member was both willing and able to serve as guardian.  A professional guardian should not be forced to serve as guardian for free if the ward has money that must be managed.  Handling the money is time-consuming.  (If the ward has no money, a professional guardian may not be involved, but a volunteer guardian might.)  Now, if the family has real concerns that the guardian is mishandling the ward’s money, the family may monitor the guardian’s work through the periodic account reports that the guardian must file with the Probate Court.  If those account reports show excessive fees for the guardian or other money mismanagement, the family may challenge the reports in a Court hearing.

Finally, the most difficult situation might be when the ward is married.  The spouse might not be able to be the guardian.  (Perhaps the spouse has his or her own health issues.)  The guardian’s duty to look out for the ward can be really tough on the spouse.  A decision that the ward (before needing a guardian) might have made for the good of the marriage may not be the same decision that the guardian makes because the guardian isn’t in a position to make sacrifices for the good of the marriage.  The guardian might choose a care community that is not close to the spouse’s home, making it harder for the spouse to visit.  The guardian might have to take control of half of the couple’s finances to make sure that the ward’s needs can be paid for.  It could be almost impossible to maintain the same relationship that the couple had before a guardianship became necessary.

While there are reasons that a family member may not wish to be guardian to a loved one, there are also reasons that the family member may not wish to have a non-family-member guardian for a loved one.  That dilemma often leads to what amounts to almost a game of stare-down among family members.  The guardian is the family member who “blinks” first.

Note:  With Christmas and New Year’s Day coming, I do not expect to post a blog installment for the next two weeks.  Happy Holidays!

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