Guardianship is the legal process in which a court appoints a person or an institution to be the legal guardian of a person who is unable to manage their own personal, legal, medical and/or financial affairs. The guardian then has the legal right and ability to act on behalf of that person, as if that person was were acting on behalf of themself, or as if a juvenile’s parents were acting on behalf of the juvenile.
In Pennsylvania, this process begins with the filing of a Petition for Guardianship with a division of the county Court of Common Pleas known as the Orphans’ Court. The Petition explains to the court exactly why the person is in need of a guardian, and who is proposed to be the person’s guardian. The court holds a hearing in which all the relevant and necessary evidence is presented and considered. Then, after the hearing, if the judge decides that the Petition for Guardianship should be granted, the judge issues a court order appointing the guardian for the person.
There are various reasons why a person may be in need of a court-appointed guardian to manage their personal affairs. Some of the more typical examples are:
- A Juvenile. The person is a juvenile (under 18 years of age) and does not have parents or other legal guardians who are either alive or are available and capable of managing the juvenile’s affairs. For example: suppose both of a juvenile’s parents, unfortunately, pass away before the juvenile turns age 18, and neither parent had a will in which a guardian for the juvenile was named. Or, perhaps the juvenile has only one living parent, but that parent becomes severely incapacitated by an accident or illness, or perhaps the parent becomes incarcerated for a lengthy period of time. Another relative – such as an adult sibling, or a grandparent – wants to step in, give the juvenile a caring home, and take control and responsibility of the juvenile’s personal affairs until the juvenile turns age 18.
- An elderly incapacitated person. Suppose an elderly person’s mental and cognitive ability to make sound, rational decisions for themselves is lost or becomes severely reduced due to Alzheimer’s disease, or other dementia, or a stroke or other serious illness. If the person has no spouse, or if their spouse is also elderly and not capable of caring for the person’s affairs, it’s fairly typical for one or more of the person’s adult children to step up to the plate and take over Mom or Dad’s affairs. The elderly person might not have a valid Power of Attorney in place to allow their adult child to act on the person’s behalf. In that situation, the person’s adult child or children could file a Petition for Guardianship with the court seeking to be appointed as their parent’s legal guardian.
- A non-elderly incapacitated person. Suppose a person is born with a developmental delay or other impairment of their mental and cognitive faculties. While they’re still a juvenile, their parents naturally can control all of their legal, medical and financial affairs. But under the law, the moment a person turns age 18, they are legally an adult for all purposes, and they have sole power and authority over their own affairs. So parents of a cognitively impaired person, who is now legally an adult, may (and often do) suddenly find themselves being prevented from obtaining their child’s medical records, authorizing their child’s medical treatment and residential placement, or managing and accessing their child’s Social Security benefits and other financial matters. To deal with this – preferably (although it’s not required) before their child turns age 18 if at all practical – one or both of the incapacitated child’s parents will file a Petition for Guardianship with the court, seeking to be appointed as their child’s legal guardian. This will be a lasting court order which will allow the parents to continue to manage and direct all of their child’s affairs, even though their child is legally an adult.
Another example might be the case of a non-elderly person who at one time was in sufficiently good health as an adult to manage their own affairs, but becomes severely incapacitated by an accident or illness. A close relative or other caring party (such as a close friend or a medical institution) can file a Petition for Guardianship to become appointed as the incapacitated person’s legal guardian.
The attorneys at Rick Stock Law have decades of experience in preparing and handling Petitions for Guardianship for their clients. If you have a situation in which you might need guardianship for a loved one, contact our office and schedule a consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.