By Casey Wynn, Elder & Disability Law Clinic Student, Fall 2016

Have you ever heard the saying “age is but a number?” Typically, it is a harmless phrase that is thrown around when a friend has a birthday or a loved one is celebrating retirement. It is fun to say, and uplifting for others to hear, but nothing could be further from the truth when talking about a mentally challenged senior.

Unlike members of the general population which have the capacity to protect themselves against abuse, manipulation, and fraud, a mentally disabled person is more vulnerable to these dangers and may even have difficulty making important life decisions. When that struggling individual is a child, the solution is simple– his or her parents can and do make all the important medical and life decisions because the law gives them that authority. However, what happens when your precious child becomes an adult who is mentally unable to make decisions but legally holds the right to do so? In those cases, it may be time to seek guardianship because age does matter and could prevent you from helping your child in ways that you have in the past. Guardianships are used for mentally incapacitated individuals of all ages who are unable to make sound decisions regarding their own well-being and financial security.

Some people will avoid instituting a guardianship, seeing it as an affront to a loved one’s freedom. This is an understandable reaction considering American culture. At a young age, we are taught the value of freedom and few, if any, words are considered more precious.  Freedom may seem like a simple word, but for centuries brave men and women have valiantly fought to ensure that Americans remain free. Reflecting upon these sacrifices makes it difficult to give up our own freedom and gut wrenching to take someone else’s freedom away. But before  eliminating all possibility of a guardianship, there are a few things to consider.

While it is true that guardianships take away an individual’s right to make legal and personal decisions for himself; in return it gives him protections that are not otherwise available. Without a Guardian, a mentally incapacitated individual is more likely to fall victim to poor decisions and/or outside influences. Now that doesn’t mean that you should rush out to seek guardianship over all your adult relatives who make poor choices, nor would the system allow it. The beauty of this process is that the court decides when a guardianship is appropriate based largely upon a medical evaluation and the input of a court-appointed lawyer referred to as the Guardian ad litem. Put simply, if an individual has the mental capacity to make decisions and understand the consequences of those decisions, then guardianship will be denied. Also, note that guardianships are not always forever; they can be reversed via a court ruling if circumstances change. Lastly, guardianship is a fantastic planning tool for caregivers. Although it can be difficult to think about, it is important to consider what should happen to our dependent loved ones once we pass on or are no longer able to care for them. If a successor guardian is included in the guardianship petition, it makes for a much smoother process once the primary guardian is no longer able to serve due to death, illness, or for other reasons.

Thus, guardianships shouldn’t viewed with disgust; they should be embraced as a way to protect our loved ones. A guardianship doesn’t change who the person is. They are and will forever be their own person and nothing stops the Guardian from considering the individual’s wishes when making these important decisions. While freedom is one of the most important things a person can have, when that freedom endangers a person’s health or financial security, a guardianship is often best gift that we can give.