Guardianship – The Last Resort

Installment 3 of 10

In Our Series: “Long Term Care Costs for the Middle Class: 10 Steps to Asset Protection Through Medicaid in Illinois, for Middle Class Seniors and Boomers”

Many people ask, “What is guardianship in the state of Illinois?” Simply put, guardianship is the process of applying to a court to be able to legally assist an individual over the age of 18, if the person has a disability. A disabled person, for purposes of guardianship laws, is someone who cannot make basic life decisions or manage their own property or money.

Due to the participation of the court system and the attorneys’ fees involved, this process is an expensive proposition and should be avoided at all costs, if possible. Guardianship is avoided by using other methods of surrogate decision making for disabled individuals such as powers of attorney, trusts, the Health Care Surrogate Act, and other related surrogate roles. Unfortunately, many people wait too long and do not have the authority to execute powers of attorney, trusts, etc. because they are incapacitated. In such cases, we are grateful that the guardianship court exists.

Guardianship is achieved to the following general steps:

  • Filing of a petition for appointment of a guardian to be determined at a court hearing
  • Issuance of service of summons;
  • Appointment of a guardian and guardian ad litem, an unrelated individual who will be the eyes and ears of the judge in understanding the circumstances;
  • Obtaining the necessary physician’s report establishing that the individual does not have decision-making authority, and;
  • Giving notice to all spouses, children, siblings and agents under power of attorney so that they can concur or object with the guardianship itself.

The benefits of guardianship are that the day-to-day management of financial affairs can be handled by the guardian of the estate, and the day-to-day management of health matters can be accomplished by the guardian of the person. Sometimes the same individual is the guardian of both the estate and the person and sometimes different persons are appointed to these roles because of their different skill sets.

Guardianship can consist of both:

  • Uncontested guardianships: when everybody agrees with the process of the person selected, or
  • Contested guardianships: when the Ward (the person that is the subject matter of the guardianship process) or someone known to the Ward may object to the guardianship, in which case the guardianship process becomes what is called a contested guardianship (which results in expensive litigation)

The guardianship process is a last resort when people have not taken time to do the appropriate estate planning. I recommend that people get powers of attorney for property and powers of attorney for healthcare in place at age 18, in order to avoid guardianship in the event they become incapacitated. Remember, at age 18, you are an emancipated adult and you can make decisions for yourself and nobody else can make decisions for you, unless you authorize them to do so. It is for this reason we recommend powers of attorney whenever we can.

Don’t allow your personal and health matters to fall into guardianship. We are grateful that guardianship exists for tragic situations where proper planning has not taken place. But, now that you know that you can avoid guardianship through proper estate planning, prudence would indicate that you take the steps to do such planning.