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Caring for a loved one who has become legally incapacitated

Many Washington residents have barely finished raising their own children and seeing them off to adulthood before they find that their own parents need care. In some ways, caring for an incapacitated adult is similar to caring for a child, but as anyone who has cared for an older person with dementia can attest, in other ways it is very different.

In terms of the law, the main difference is that children are not legally able to make certain decisions for themselves, but an adult has rights to make his or her own decisions. When an adult is incapacitated, another party must legally acquire the right to make these decisions on the incapacitated person's behalf.

One common way to handle this is through having a court appoint an adult child of the individual as guardian, and the incapacitated person as ward. While similar to a parent-child relationship, the guardian-adult ward relationship typically has more legal requirements. The first of these is to have the adult legally declared incapacitated. To get a court to declare a person incapacitated, one needs to show more than age, eccentricity or a medical diagnosis; one must show that the person has, over a period of time, shown such insufficiency in managing his or her own affairs that he or she is at serious risk.

There are different types of guardianships, depending on the circumstances. Some guardians have discretion to make many types of decisions for the ward, while others have more limited power. In all decision-making, guardians are trained to encourage the ward's independence, as much as possible.

Watching a loved one struggle with everyday tasks can be an emotionally difficult experience. However, serving as a caring and effective guardian can also be an important and valuable experience.

Washington residents who are making their estate plans should talk to a lawyer about how to plan for the possibility that they may need a guardian. Those who are concerned that their loved ones may need guardianship should also seek out legal help.

Source: King County Bar Association, "Family & Volunteer Guardian's Handbook," accessed Aug. 28, 2015

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