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What is Guardianship?

Updated: Jan 27, 2023



Guardianship, sometimes referred to as conservatorship, is a legal process intended to obtain legal authority to make decisions for another person. The person seeking to have a guardian appointed is called the “petitioner”. The “guardian”, who can be different than the petitioner, is appointed by the court to make decisions for the object of the guardianship proceeding. The person (either an adult or child) who is the object of the proceeding is called the protected person. Because establishing guardianship may remove considerable rights from an individual, it should only be considered after alternatives to guardianship have proven ineffective or are unavailable.


Situations Where Guardianship Might be Needed

A guardianship may be needed over a child if there is no parent available or capable of caring for a child. A guardian over the child’s estate (assets titled to the child) may be needed if the child inherits assets (via a Will or as beneficiary of an account). Children are not able to have assets titled in their own name. This protects the assets until the child reaches the age of majority (18 in Pennsylvania).


A guardianship may be needed over an adult if the adult has a cognitive or physical condition that is incapacitating, meaning the person is unable to care for themselves due to mental illness, mental deficiency, disease or medical condition (such as dementia, Alzheimer’s).


Types of Guardianship

A petitioner may seek appointment of the following types of guardians:


Guardian of the Person, to make personal, residential, and medical decisions for an incapacitated person; or


Guardian of the Estate, to make and implement financial decisions and manage income and property (many other states use the term “conservator” for a guardian appointed only for financial matters); or


BOTH, Guardian of the Person and Guardian of the Estate; or


Plenary Guardianship (full) or Limited Guardianship. In the case of limited guardianships, the court must specify the areas over which the guardian has authority and the areas over which the protected person retains authority.


How Long Does a Guardianship Last?

A guardianship over an adult lasts until the adult regains the ability to care for themselves or until they pass away. The protected person or the guardian can ask the court to end the guardianship if they feel it is no longer needed.


A guardianship over a child lasts until they turn 18. If the child will not graduate from high school until age 19, the child and guardian can consent to the guardianship continuing until graduation or reaching age 19, whichever occurs first.


Alternatives to Guardianship and Limited Guardianship

Because guardianship deprives an individual of their legal rights and restricts their right to autonomy and self-determination, a guardianship order should be considered a last resort. A court must determine that there is no suitable less restrictive alternative before adjudicating a person incapacitated and appointing a guardian. Generally, guardianship should be as limited as reasonably possible to address the needs of the protected person. The court should allow the person to retain decision-making responsibility in areas where they are able to make and communicate decisions. Of course, it may become necessary to remove all of an individual’s rights and grant total responsibility to a guardian. A petitioner and court should explore and exhaust possible alternatives to guardianship before committing to the drastic act of depriving an individual of all rights.


Consult with a Guardianship Lawyer Today

If you have questions about legal guardianship in Pennsylvania, we recommend consulting with a lawyer experienced in guardianship proceedings and elder law. At Fiffik Law Group, our skilled lawyers have helped many clients in the area navigate the guardianship process. Whether you are pursuing becoming a guardian or objecting to a guardian, we can help. Contact us today to schedule your initial consultation.


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