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Understanding Guardianship for Older Adults

One day you may find yourself involved in guardianship proceedings for an elderly parent or relative. Here’s an overview of what guardianship means today, how the court evaluates the adult, and what you need to know.

Guardianship promises to be a huge issue facing baby boomers in the years ahead as they watch over elderly parents—often from a distance— and wonder if the time has come to take control of mom or dad’s affairs before something bad happens. In years past, the effort to obtain guardianship of an incapacitated adult was often an ugly, acrimonious process that stripped elderly people of virtually all of their rights. If a court determined that an older person was confused and couldn’t pay his or her bills or make independent decisions, a guardian was appointed to handle all of that person’s affairs and make decisions for him or her.

Guardianship of the person gives the guardian the right to make decisions concerning living arrangements and health care. Guardianship of the estate, which is also called conservatorship, gives the guardian, or conservator, the right to manage the person’s property. The all-or-nothing nature of guardianship has often led to fierce fights among family members and caregivers, to say nothing of the indignities suffered by elderly people who want to retain some semblance of autonomy.