What is the difference between guardianship and power of attorney? | Chicago Elder Law Attorney Anthony B. Ferraro

Guardianship is a legal relationship where a court gives someone (the guardian) the power to make personal decisions for another (the ward). The proceedings are started by a family member or friend who initiates a petition in the circuit court in the county where the individual resides. A licensed physician must conduct a medical examination in order to establish the individual’s condition. It is the court of law that then determines whether the individual is able to meet the essential requirements for his or her health and safety, or not. If the individual can’t, the court appoints a guardian to make personal decisions for that person. The guardian — unless limited by the court — has the same rights, powers and duties over his ward as parents do over their minor children. The guardian must report to the court annually.

A power of attorney is a legal document where one person (the principal) designates another person (the agent) to act on his or her behalf, either for financial or healthcare decisions.

A conservatorship is a legal relationship whereby a court gives a person (the conservator) the power to make financial decisions for another (the protectee). Court proceedings here are very similar to those of a guardianship, except the court of law determines whether an individual lacks the capacity to manage his or her financial affairs.

If this is the case, the court appoints a conservator to make financial decisions for the person. Often, the court will appoint the same person to act as guardian and conservator for the individual. Just as with the guardianship, the conservator must report to the court annually.

Powers of attorney for healthcare and property/financial decisions are relatively inexpensive and a private way to determine which family member or friend will have the legal authority to carry out your wishes if you can no longer speak or act for yourself. You must consider that if you do not have powers of attorney, or if the papers for one are not drafted properly, your loved ones may later face court proceedings and court supervised guardianship and/or conservatorship, if something happens to you.

A court proceeding is not only costly, but the person who ultimately is appointed as your guardian/conservator might not be someone whom you would have chosen for these sensitive decisions.