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Protecting your disabled loved ones through a guardianship

Every year, families face the need to help a disabled loved one receive appropriate care. Sometimes these needs are anticipated, such as a child who has always been disabled reaching the age of 18. Other times it is completely unexpected, such as when someone suffers a severe stroke or sudden illness and he never appointed someone to act on his behalf. This can be a very distressing time for families because important decisions need to be made quickly. Often when families try to talk with doctors, hospitals, or creditors, they are given limited information because their loved one is an adult; well-meaning family simply does not have an automatic right to act on behalf of an adult.

In Pennsylvania, adults are given the ability to make their own decisions about their health, well-being, and finances. This is true even if their family strongly disagrees. While it may not seem like a good idea for an adult to cash in a retirement early and decide to never work again, the reality is that they are legally permitted to do so. However, there are situations where an adult cannot and should not make these decisions independently. Some adults experience long-term physical or mental health conditions which make them unable to follow directions in taking medication, arrange for assistance in helping them to live independently, or understand how to respond to an emergency. These are only a few scenarios in which families may need to consider a guardianship appointment to help their loved one achieve physical and financial security and safety.

When a family member is appointed guardian, she is able to speak with doctors, take an active role in medical treatment decisions, pay bills on behalf of the disabled family member, and arrange for other types of personal care. Because this is a legal document signed by a judge, families can be assured that their requests will not be refused because a provider is unable to speak with someone other than the disabled adult.

While a guardianship order is a lifeline for families who want to provide the best care possible for their loved one, it is important to note that it should be a last resort. Such an order takes away an adult’s ability to make her own decisions, which can greatly change the way she lives her life. The family dynamic can also be drastically altered if family members disagree on whether someone lacks the capacity to care for herself. Before filing a petition in court, it is wise to speak with a Pennsylvania guardianship lawyer to determine the best course of action. When I meet with clients seeking a guardianship, we talk about what the family member’s medical conditions are and whether there are any options which may be more appropriate. Identifying your loved one’s needs will help you to make the best decision which protects them and allows them to maintain as much independence as possible.

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