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Posted: May 05, 2008

Practical Caregiving

What if I Become My Parent's Guardian?

Many of us worry whether we’ll need to become a legal guardian to our aging parent. After all, Mom and Dad have always made their own decisions for their lives, and also for our lives when we were young. So, it comes as no surprise that one of our worst nightmares is to have our parents incapacitated so we have to make all the decisions for them.

And we’re left wondering -- is there any alternative this huge legal step? 

First of all, let’s look at some of the different terms. First, there’s a guardian, and then there is a conservator. Some people say they are two different roles but others say they are the same thing. Either way, they represent a legal responsibility created and monitored by the courts.

 

Technically, the guardian makes decisions for the elderly person. These decisions are for medical care and other aspects of our loved one’s life. Questions could include whether our loved one can live at home or must move into a nursing home.

The conservator, on the other hand, deals strictly with the property of our loved one. That can include real estate, stocks, cash and anything else the elderly person owns. Guardianship and conservatorship can be combined so that one person has control of both. 

Guardianship and conservatorship both take away a person’s decision-making authority. In other words, your loved one can not make any major decisions regarding their life. They have to depend on someone else to make the right decisions for their welfare. And this authority remains in place, unless you return to court to have the order ended. Obviously, this costs money, and it can take its toll in other ways, as well. Quite often, the courts will require a regular report to be filed and that’s a pain. 

 

Once the court is involved, your loved one has no more freedom. You are responsible to make all their decisions not an enviable situation for most of us. You naturally want to allow your loved one to make as many of their own decisions as possible for as long as possible.

 

But there are other ways to handle this difficult situation. 

If your loved one can’t dress themselves, they might have someone from a home health care agency come into their home to help. These agencies have case management teams available to monitor a person’s needs, which cover the medical, emotional and physical bases. If your loved one doesn’t like that particular person or agency, they can fire them and hire another person or agency. You might want to help supervise the people coming into the home, but it’s sure a lot better than your being a legal guardian or conservator in complete control of your loved one’s life. They retain as much independence as possible and independence is so important to all of us. 

 

Your loved one also can and should create a living will, which specifies the life-sustaining procedures they do or do not want. The only time this is implemented is when a person is not able to make those critical decisions themselves. The medical field is required by law to take certain life saving steps when there is not a living will. Each state has different laws; it is not standardized. 

Then there is a durable power of attorney for health care. Your loved one can name the person they want to make healthcare decisions for them if they can no longer make those decisions. Frankly, this takes away all the family arguments, so common in theses circumsatnces. 

There also are voluntary, proactive things your loved one can do to make sure their finances, home, stocks, bonds and anything else they own will be taken care of. They can set up automatic payments to creditors and instruct direct deposits. In either case, they would need to make sure there is enough money in an account to cover these actions at all times. Your loved one can add the name of the person they want to handle their finances to the bank accounts, stocks and bonds, and other assets. This is a good way for your loved one, at your urging, to make sure they have the cash to buy everything they need when they need it. For example, if your loved one suffers a stroke and needs extra things at home, someone else typically would need to buy them.

Your loved one can also draw up a financial power of attorney, specifying the person they want to handle their finances. Your loved one can end that at any time. There is also a trust, where the trustee holds the elderly’s property transferred to the trust, and is responsible to use the property as your loved one states in the trust. Quite often the trustee is an organization acting on behalf of an elderly individual. The trust can be set up for your loved one, or for other people listed in the trust. 

All in all, it’s a huge responsibility to be a guardian or conservatorship but there are alternatives. I know each and every one of you would prefer your loved one handle their own situation for as long as possible. If they will make arrangements now, they will ensure things will be handled the way they want. It will make your life much easier. Why don’t you talk to them about it today?

© 2008 Pederson Publishing, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Commercial use, redistribution or other forms of reuse of this information is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission of Pederson Publishing.

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Please send me your questions, comments and issues regarding the practical side of caregiving at ASKJEAN@caregivershome.com, and remember to take advantage of our professionals and experts in the Ask an Expert section of our website. You'll find it in the left column on our homepage.

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