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Court favors temporary guardianship for disabled woman

A 29-year-old woman with Down syndrome has won her court battle to remove her parents as her legal guardians. Proponents of the rights of adults with disabilities are calling the verdict a huge victory. The case illustrates some of the legal difficulties of guardianships that many Washington families face.

The woman was born with Down syndrome, a genetic condition that often causes mental retardation, but varies widely in its effects. Her IQ has been estimated to be about 50. Her mother and father had been serving as her legal guardians, and felt that she should live in a group home against her will. The woman wanted to live more independently, working at a thrift store and living with a couple who befriended her, employed her and took her into their home while she was recovering from a bike accident.

The judge in the case ultimately agreed that the woman did need legal guardians, but that she should have some say in the matter, and that the government's role should be to promote her independence. The couple whom the woman befriended have been appointed legal guardians on a temporary basis.

Under Washington law, the parents or closest relatives of minors are generally presumed to be the guardians of the children, having the legal right to make important decisions for them. Once a child turns 18, that guardianship is dissolved. However, when a child has a mental disability or other disability that makes it hard for the child to communicate or become independent, the court may appoint a guardian to make those decisions and help take care of the child.

The person appointed to make the decisions is the guardian and the person under the guardianship is called the ward. This process also often becomes important when elderly people develop dementia or otherwise lose their ability to be independent.

Washington courts establish temporary guardianships in order to make sure that someone is taking care of the disabled or incapacitated person, but the courts must always keep in mind the interests of the ward. Courts are supposed to give guardians the power to do only those things the wards cannot do on their own.

Washington residents who think they need to set up a guardianship, or those who think they need to break one, should get help understanding their legal rights. Guardianships can be very important and beneficial arrangements in caring for a love one, but only when set up and managed appropriately.

Source: The Seattle Times, "Woman with Down syndrome wins independence," Theresa Vargas, Aug. 3, 2013

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