A “guardian” of an adult is a person appointed by the court who is responsible for the personal affairs of an incapacitated adult, including responsibility for making decisions regarding the adult’s support, care, health, safety, habilitation, education, therapeutic treatment, and residence. A “conservator” is also appointed by the court, and is responsible for managing the estate and financial affairs of an incapacitated person. In some states, a “conservator” is called a “guardian of the estate” and the “regular” guardian is called the “guardian of the person.”
When we think of legal guardianship or conservatorship, several scenarios typically come to mind: an elderly parent with dementia; an adult who has been severely injured and can no longer take care of himself; and, increasingly, young adults who are making unsafe, dangerous, or destructive decisions. For examples, please read our recent celebrity series, featuring Amanda Bynes,Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan for more details.
Below are the stories of two people who, like the celebrities in the previous series, need to be protected from themselves. In these cases, extreme measures, such as guardianship may need to be taken.
Serial 911- Caller
Martha Rigsby, a Washington, D.C. resident, has called 911 thousands of times over three decades. The phone calls began after a fainting episode in 1977. D.C. officials wish to give Rigsby her own home health aide because it would be cheaper than sending an ambulance each time. But even that may not stop the calls as the help will not be staying round-the-clock. In addition, even after a group involving representatives from several city agencies suggested Ms. Rigsby should have a home health aide or even use a wheel chair, she declined their offers.
According to court records, Abayomi Jaji, a psychiatrist with the D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, said that Rigsby continues “to place herself in real danger of bodily injuries from falls under the claim of seizures or Narcolepsy,” which have never been correlated with medical findings. Jaji also said that Rigsby “lacks the mental capacity to take care of herself as evidenced by almost every other day calls to 911.”
Although Ms. Rigsby has been known to paramedics for decades, city officials increased their focus on her in December after she called 911 and threatened to harm herself, according to court testimony. Now she has an added worry – that the volume of calls might lead to criminal charges.
Rigsby owes more than $60,000 to D.C. emergency services. Officials have filed a guardianship petition to take over the medical affairs of Rigsby, the most frequent 911 caller in the history of the city.
Reese Witherspoon‘s 70-year old father, Dr. John Draper Witherspoon, was recently married. There’s one problem. He was never divorced from Reese’s mother, Mary. While they’ve been living apart for the last 16 years, they still are married. Mary says she still loves her husband of 42 years, but they had to separate because of John’s alleged alcoholism, overspending, infidelity, and hoarding.
Mary found out about John’s marriage to Tricianne Taylor by reading the wedding announcement in the local paper, and she is very worried for John. She recently sued Tricianne in order to annul the marriage, due to bigamy. Reese’s mother also asked the court to order Tricianne to vacate the condo where John and Tricianne live (and which is owned by Reese), and to return any property she has received from the family.
Mary alleged in her court filing that John and Tricianne used fraud or forgery, with her possibly posing as Mrs. John Witherspoon, to trick a bank into lending $400,000 to them. She said that Tricianne has tried to borrow money as John’s wife. She’s also living in his condo, driving their families’ vehicles, and even has convinced John to sign a new will.
Mary says she confronted John about it, and he didn’t even know he had gotten married. She is very worried for John’s mental and physical health, pointing out that he suffers from diabetes, a heart condition, and what she fears is early-onset dementia. She says John was recently let go from the medical practice where he was an otolaryngologist for 30 years.
What can Reese Witherspoon and her mother do to fully protect John? The only way to really insulate him, if Mary’s fears and allegations are true, is with a guardianship/conservatorship proceeding.
While in this case the relationship turned into bigamy, many gold-diggers are content to convince their victims to give them gifts, add their names to bank accounts or deeds, or change their will or trust to name them as beneficiaries. All of this can be achieved without a marriage, and the only way to stop it is with a guardianship court proceeding. But, to succeed in a filing like that, you have to prove that the elderly victim is, at least to a certain degree, incompetent and in need of protection. That certainly is the case here, if Mary’s claims are shown to be true.
Guardianship is an extreme form of intervention in another person’s life because control over personal and/or financial decisions is transferred to someone else for an indefinite, often permanent period of time. Once established, it can be difficult to revoke. Therefore, guardianship should only be used as a last resort. There are times when a person might need a guardian, but can be served in a less restrictive way.
Very few people want to have court oversight and be unable to make decisions without getting someone else’s permission. That’s a big reason why proper legal planning is so important. The very same protections can usually be achieved without any court proceeding, through the use of good Power of Attorney documents for medical and financial decisions. If you and your loved ones don’t already have up-to-date power of attorney documents in place, then it’s critical to do so right away.
Certainly there are times — as with the people described above— that Powers of Attorney aren’t enough to help. But those instances are the exceptions, not the rule. Every adult 18 years and older should have proper power of attorney documents, just in case. See Part 1 of the celebrity series for other alternatives to guardianship and conservatorship.
If you have an incapacitated family member like Mr. Witherspoon or Ms. Rigsby, or just a “borderline” or “unstable” family member such as Bynes or Lohan, and you would like to talk about your options, call 703-691-1888 in Fairfax or 540-479-1435 in Fredericksburg to make an appointment for a no-cost consultation at The Fairfax and Fredericksburg Elder Law Firm of Evan H. Farr, P.C.
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