Guardianship refers to a legal role appointed to a party by a probate court. A person known as a legal guardian is legally allowed to make personal, medical, and financial decisions on behalf of another person, known as a ward. In most situations, the ward is a minor child, or a mentally or physically disabled adult. Typically, a ward must be unable to make decisions on their own behalf in order to be granted a legal guardian. In some states, guardianship may also be referred to as conservatorship.
There are many different types of guardianship relationships. The type of guardianship necessary is based on the circumstances, needs, and best interests of the ward. Some guardianships grant a legal guardian full decision making privileges, while others limit the guardian to only making financial or legal decisions.
The probate court will make the final determination as to who may serve as a legal guardian for the ward. The probate court will consider several factors such as the potential guardian’s relationship with the ward and the ward’s desires, if they are able to state a preference when determining who to appoint as guardian.
A contested guardianship refers to a situation in which the guardian status of a person is challenged, or called into question. This most commonly occurs when the legal guardian is not fulfilling their role as guardian. An example of this would be when the guardian fails to provide basic living necessities for their ward. Contested guardianship is commonly connected with neglect or abuse. When challenging or contesting a guardianship arrangement, the lawsuit could involve multiple parties challenging the previous court order appointing the guardian.
How Does the Court Determine Who Is Fit to Be a Guardian?
As previously mentioned, the court considers several factors when determining whether to grant legal guardian status to a potential guardian. Some of these factors include but may not be limited to:
- The relationship of the potential guardian and the ward, such as whether they are related or are close friends;
- The nature of the ward’s condition, such as whether they are a minor child, elderly, disabled, etc.;
- Whether or not a formal guardianship letter exists and is signed by the ward, as this letter may contain instructions or preferences;
- If the guardianship is emergency or temporary in nature;
- The financial background of the guardian; and
- The mental, physical, and emotional stability of the guardian.
When a guardianship is contested, the court may revisit these factors to determine whether their initial assessment still holds true. An analysis of these factors can help the court determine guardian fitness in the event of a guardianship legal dispute. Once again, guardianship is most often challenged when new evidence arises that the current legal guardian is unfit to care for their ward.
What Are Competing Guardianship Applications?
Competing guardianship applications describe a situation in which more than one person simultaneously applies to be ward’s guardian. An example of this would be an elderly person needing a guardian, and both of their two children apply to be appointed their parent’s legal guardian.
In these situations the court must still analyze all parties involved in order to determine which guardian would best serve the ward’s interests. In cases involving multiple siblings applying to be their parent’s legal guardian, their similar backgrounds could make the decision a close one. Each party would need to provide the court evidence to support their claim as to why they would be the most suitable guardian.
The situation may be further complicated if there are issues involving the termination of an existing guardianship. Most guardianships are temporary and will automatically terminate when the circumstances requiring the guardianship have cured. An example of this would be if the minor ward turns eighteen, or when the ward dies. A guardian may also request to have the guardianship terminated by filing a petition with the court to resign from their position. An interested potential guardian may push for terminating an existing guardianship as another way to contest the guardianship.
What Else Should I Know About Guardianships and Guardianship Legal Disputes?
The process of obtaining a guardianship will likely vary by state. However, typically the first step is filing a petition for guardianship appointment with the probate court in the county in which the ward lives. Most probate courts require that a hearing be held and attended by the potential guardian, as well as the ward. At such a hearing, the judge will evaluate the case and listen to all interested parties. After the hearing, the judge will then decide which party, if any, should receive legal guardian status.
As previously mentioned, the most common legal dispute regarding guardianship is the basic question of who should serve as the ward’s legal guardian. Disputes may also arise over the ward’s estate, or when child support payments are involved. It is imperative that the ward’s best interests be held above all else, and that any legal guardian carries out their duties in accordance with those interests.
Do I Need an Attorney for Assistance With Contested Guardianships?
If you are a legal guardian and your position is being contested, or if you are contesting the appointment of another legal guardian, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable family law attorney.
An experienced family law attorney can help you understand your state’s specific laws regarding guardianship, as well as your legal rights and options. Finally, an attorney will be able to represent you in court, as needed.