Q: The hospital said we need to apply for guardianship of my Dad. What is that?

A: I am asked about guardianship all too frequently. We all assume our very responsible parents and relatives have their legal documents in order. Often, they do not! And while guardianship sounds positive, it is a status of last resort--where the senior relinquishes all rights to self-determination.

If doctors have deemed your father incompetent to make his own decisions, guardianship may be the next step.

A guardian can be any competent adult—the person’s spouse, family member, friend, neighbor, or a professional guardian. A judge will use medical reports and hear testimony to determine the extent of incapacity and the qualifications of the person seeking guardianship.

A court-appointed guardian can be authorized to make legal, financial and healthcare decisions. Ideally, the guardian will take into account the known wishes and desires of the person under guardianship. If a suitable guardian is not found, the court can appoint a publicly financed agency that serves this purpose. This is what we all want to avoid!

With the help of an elder law attorney, there are simple things that any competent adult can do to reduce the chances of ever needing guardianship.

1. Draft a Durable Power of Attorney for your day-to-day finances.

2. Draft a revocable living trust that includes a successor trustee to manage your investments if you lose mental capacity.

3. Draft an advance healthcare directive. This document names a surrogate decision maker for your healthcare decisions, including those for end-of-life.

4. Discuss your wishes and all the documents with your family -- so they know how to put your plan into action.

It is far better to have someone you know and trust make healthcare and financial decisions for you. Be smart, talk to your family and get your important paperwork in order. It can save everyone a lot of heartache. For information on elder law, call 321-751-6771.

One Senior Place is a marketplace for resources and provider of information, advice, care and on-site services for seniors and their families. Questions for this column are answered by professionals in nursing, social work, care management and in-home care. Send questions to askOSP@OneSeniorPlace.com, call 321-751-6771 or visit One Senior Place, The Experts in Aging at OneSeniorPlace.com. Barbara Fradkin is a Social Worker, Certified Care Manager and the Director of One Senior Place, Viera.

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