Thoughts on being a legal guardian
A few weeks ago, a lady called seeking guidance about becoming a legal guardian for a family member.
Let me back up a minute. In an ideal world, one will have pre-determined who will make medical decisions through a document called the advanced medical directive, and who will make financial decisions through a power of attorney document. If you have not already done so, now may be a good time for you to be researching these documents and filling them out for yourself and other family members you care about.
If something happens to you, and you have not filled out these documents, your family will be forced to make some hard choices. If you are no longer in a position to make wise medical or financial decisions for yourself, your family will be forced to appoint a guardian and/or conservator to perform these tasks. A guardian makes all your medical decisions for you and a conservator makes all your financial decisions on your behalf. This process is time consuming and will ultimately need to be decided by a judge. It is an expensive, emotionally challenged and conflict inducing process. I know, I’ve been there! If there is not a family member suitable and willing to serve, a professional fiduciary can be hired.
Being a legal guardian is not for everyone. Before considering if you are the right choice for the job there are a lot of factors to take into consideration. You need to have a strong enough personality to be willing to make the hard decisions. This isn’t always a popular place to be. If you care more about how others will react to your decisions, than what the best interests of the person entrusted to you are, then this is not the job for you. If you are this person’s sole support, you may not be the best person for the job. If your plate is already full with multiple demands on your time and attention, then you may not be available to perform the tasks required of you.
When I stepped up to the plate to become a legal guardian for a family member, we were in a crisis situation. This is not an uncommon situation. If it hadn’t been a crisis, an advanced medical directive would have served our purposes, which is why it is so important to be thinking about that now. When we assessed who was available to fill this role, I had the most time in my schedule, I have a strong enough personality to accomplish the job, and I was willing to deal with the fall out, whatever happened.
Once we jumped through the hoops of getting the guardianship in place, I had to go to the hospital and make some of the hardest decisions I had ever made in my life. Thankfully, I had the backing of most of the family, but not all. Volunteering for this job put me in an awkward position for many years with certain family members. But at the end of the day, it was the right thing for me, and I don’t regret stepping up to the plate.
Once you are entrusted with the role of being a legal guardian, besides making all of the medical decisions for your protected person, you are required to complete a guardianship report every year. This report describes what you did during the past year and gives an up to date summary of the health of the person in your care. It also is done through your lawyer, and the cost is passed down to the person you are caring for.
While I do not regret the decisions we made at the time, we did the best we could with the situation we were faced with, I do strongly encourage all to be pro-active so they don’t find themselves in the same situation. And I am honest with people to let them know that being a legal guardian isn’t for everyone. Thankfully, my situation has a happy ending. Over time, the family has reconciled, and as far as I know everyone is at peace with my decisions.
Are you the right person to be a legal guardian? I can’t answer that for you, but by assessing the needs, strengths and circumstances of your situation, you will have a better answer to that question. Being a guardian requires someone who has time in their schedule to attend to their protected person’s needs, who will weigh the needs of this person, and make decisions in their best interest. Depending on the needs of your protected person, they may not appreciate you having this control over their life, and you need to be strong enough to handle the fall out of your relationship.
I highly recommend that you designate who you would like to be in control of your medical and financial decisions through the advanced medical directive and power of attorney documents. This will alleviate your family from having to go through the heartache of deciding for you. Hopefully you will not need these people, but if something unexpected should happen, you will be glad you did.