Some thoughts about guardianship and conservatorship

Some Thoughts About Guardianship and Conservatorship in Arizona

NOVEMBER 14, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 39
Let’s talk about guardianship and conservatorship proceedings. Before we do, though, let’s remember a couple of important principles:

  1. We only know about Arizona guardianship or conservatorship. Well, OK — we might know a thing or two about other states’ rules and procedures — but we only practice in Arizona. Our observations are not universally applicable. They may not even be universally applicable inside Arizona’s borders.
  2. As always, we simply can’t give specific case-based legal advice here, and you should not rely on this newsletter (or anything you read online or in books) to resolve your case. This is big-picture stuff. We can and do write about how the system works, what the rules look like, and what you might expect if you are involved in a guardianship and/or conservatorship matter in Arizona. Don’t expect to print out our articles, take them to court and argue with the judge, though. She won’t appreciate it, and neither will we. Plus it won’t work. Get good legal advice.
  3. One thing we’ve learned from years of law practice: people think they understand their own cases, but they get blinded to the nuances (or maybe they aren’t told everything about the contrary evidence or opinions) and tend to overgeneralize. We don’t think that means they are stupid, or liars — they are just trying to put the best face on their case, and that’s human nature. But it also means that if you say “aha — he hit the nail on the head and that’s exactly what my worthless brother is trying to do” we’d be likely to tell you (if we were your lawyer): “slow down. It’s not that clear.”
  4. We have written a lot about guardianship and conservatorship. Here’s one of our better (and most comprehensive) articles, a White Paper on guardianship and conservatorship. But it’s a difficult and confusing topic, with lots of information — and misinformation — out there.

Disclaimers aside, let’s talk about guardianship and conservatorship. Let’s start with some definitions of terms.

In Arizona, the word “guardianship” is applied to the court proceedings instituted to acquire legal control over another human beings’ person. In general terms, a guardian is authorized by the court to make placement and health care decisions for that other human being. Not every state uses the same word. Not every state has the same process to get a guardian (or whatever they call the office) appointed. But every state does have some kind of court proceeding in which a person can be appointed to manage the health care and living arrangements of another person.

In Arizona, the word “conservatorship” is applied to the court proceedings instituted to acquire legal control over another human beings’ finances. A conservator usually is authorized by the court to handle checking accounts, real estate, brokerage accounts, businesses, vehicles, horses, airplanes, family photographs, oil and gas leases — you name it. Just to keep the confusion level high, not every state calls this type of court-appointed person a conservator — some, in fact, call them guardians. But in Arizona, the person managing property and finances is a conservator.

Neither guardians nor conservators are “powers of attorney.” In point of fact, powers of attorney are pieces of paper, not people at all. But now we quibble. The person named to manage your property and/or your person in a power of attorney is properly called your “agent” or your “attorney-in-fact.” A guardian or conservator is neither an agent nor an attorney-in-fact. They usually have authority over agents and attorneys-in-fact, though it may require separate court action to make that clear, and it may be possible for the court to determine that the agent (or attorney-in-fact, if you prefer hyphenated names) still has authority even after appointment of a guardian and/or conservator.

Who can have a guardian appointed? Someone who is incapacitated. Their incapacity can be based on their age (minors — those under age 18 — are automatically incapacitated under Arizona law unless they are “emancipated”) or their circumstances. Generally speaking, parents are the natural guardians of their minor children, so they do not need to go to court to secure guardianship. The same is not true for any class of adults. So if your 18-year-old child has a lifelong disability that makes him unable to make responsible decisions, you do not automatically shift from being his natural guardian at 17 to being his legal guardian at 18. A court proceeding is necessary. Same thing if your husband or wife becomes incapacitated — you may need court proceedings to become guardian (if there is no power of attorney and there are things that need to be taken care of). “Incapacity” for adults requires a court showing of (a) a mental, medical or other condition that (b) affects the ability of the person to make and communicate responsible personal decisions and (c) makes it difficult or impossible for them to provide their own food and shelter without assistance. It is also necessary to show that (d) the appointment of a guardian will actually help accomplish that goal.

Appointment of a conservator is based on similar, but slightly different, grounds. First, minority is always considered a legally disabling condition, but parents are not the natural conservators of their children in the way that they are natural guardians. That means if a minor child comes into money, even if they live with both parents and all are harmonious and responsible, there is no way to manage that money without going through the conservatorship process. If an adult becomes unable to manage their money in order to prevent its waste or dissipation, they may have a conservator appointed, as well. Frankly, the definition of when a conservator can be appointed is a great deal less precise than that for guardianships, which can sometimes lead to problems.

An important reality for family members and friends to understand: if a guardianship and/or conservatorship proceeding is initiated, the court has been invoked and will not later simply step aside to let concerned — even appropriately concerned — family members take over. Once the courts are involved, they tend to stay involved.

That means that the cost of securing guardianship and conservatorship can be high. In Arizona, a lawyer is automatically appointed to represent the person who is alleged to be in need of a guardian or conservator. A medical report is required. A court-appointed investigator must go to the residence, conduct an investigation and file a report. There are significant court costs involved. Plus the process is complicated enough that the petitioner is almost always going to hire an attorney. That attorney’s bill is likely to approach half the total cost of getting the guardianship or conservatorship set up.

Much has been written, spoken and broadcast in recent years about the high cost of guardianship and conservatorship. The natural tendency of the system has been to make it more difficult to get guardians and conservators appointed, and to require them to provide more information, more frequently. Though that may be a positive development, it has the (presumably unintended) effect of making the process not only more difficult, but also more expensive.

So — guardianship and conservatorship can be difficult, expensive, even ineffective. Not always, of course, but there is a possibility and it proves to be the case too often. What can beleaguered family members do?

Most lawyers practicing in the field spend the first portion of any contact with a new client talking about how to avoid guardianship and conservatorship proceedings. Did your family member sign a health care power of attorney, a financial power of attorney, a living will, a living trust? Are there other ways to get done what needs to be done? What bad things will happen if we (that is, the family and the lawyers acting together) simply do not file a guardianship or conservatorship proceeding, even if one is warranted? Are there ways to get agreement from all the family members in advance, in order to hold down legal costs?

One important concern, at least in the case of adult guardianship and conservatorship: we will ultimately need to be able to prove that your family member has a medical, mental, emotional or other problem that prevents them from making their own personal or financial decisions. We will need medical evidence. Have you spoken with your family member’s physician, or psychologist, or other member of their treatment team? Can you get a letter from that person describing diagnosis, prognosis and any functional limitations? Without that, we may not be able to proceed. With that in hand, though, the process may be significantly streamlined.

Getting guardianship or conservatorship can be expensive, emotionally wrenching, and sometimes even ultimately unsatisfying. Sometimes, however, it is absolutely necessary. We just need to be sure you are prepared for the cost, the procedures, the limitations, and the possibilities in this type of legal proceeding. That’s why you hire a lawyer, after all.

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