Junette, a family caregiver from Arkansas, understands the challenges of providing the best possible care for her adult daughter, Colleen. In 2007, Colleen was injured severely in a hit-and-run accident. Since that time, Junette, her husband, Johnny, and Colleen’s husband, Mark, have done everything possible to care for Colleen at home. They said, “Absolutely not!” when asked if Colleen should be placed in a nursing home. Now, Junette and Johnny help with caregiving responsibilities for Colleen, while Mark serves as her guardian.
Adult guardianship is a process by which a state court appoints an individual to care for the well-being, and possibly finances, of another person who is unable to care for him or herself. Guardians can be family members, friends, or non-related professionals appointed by a judge.
Across the country, we’ve seen an uptick in action to improve outdated guardianship laws, procedures, and practices. State legislators, judges, family advocates, and other stakeholders are working to:
- Prevent the abuse and exploitation of older and vulnerable adults
- Simplify caring across state lines for long-distance guardians
- Improve training and establish standards for all guardians
- Create programs and funding for public guardianship
- Explore less restrictive guardianship alternatives, like supported decision making
In the states, AARP has been at the forefront of the fight to improve guardianship statutes, practices, and standards by advocating for comprehensive and accountable guardianship reforms. Our goal: to help protect vulnerable adults and provide their caregivers with the tools necessary to make important decisions.
Here are 3 ways we’re fighting to improve adult guardianship laws around the country:
- A New Uniform Law
In July 2017, the Uniform Law Commission approved the Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship, and Other Protective Arrangements Act (UGCOPAA). This new act makes it easier for family caregivers and adult guardians to care for their loved ones across state lines. UGCOPAA covers guardianships of adults and minors, emphasizes an approach that centers on the person, and calls on state courts to provide information, guidance, and oversight. The three main objectives of the act are:
- Focus on the Individual: Highlights personalized guardianship plans and requires courts to order less restrictive options for people who are capable of making their own decisions.
- Focus on the Guardian: Spells out the duties and responsibilities of a guardian, provides criteria for decision-making, and outlines standards of practice and training requirements. It also provides a detailed procedure for getting rid of guardians who are “bad actors,” meaning that they are not acting in the best interest of the person for whom they are responsible.
- Focus on the Courts: Guides judges to use the least restrictive option available, before appointing full guardianship. It provides courts with alternatives and emphasizes court oversight and monitoring to help prevent abuse and exploitation.
Maine is the first state to enact the UGCOPAA and New Mexico’s legislature adopted sections pertaining to mandatory reporting and bonding.
- Supported Decision Making
Additionally, states are looking to update guardianship laws to ensure access to less restrictive alternatives, like supported-decision making (SDM). A supported decision-making agreement enables a person, who can make his or her own life decisions but needs assistance doing so, to name an individual, like a family caregiver, to help make these decisions.
In 2015, Texas became the first state to enact SDM, followed by Delaware and most recently, Wisconsin. The Alaska legislature passed a SDM bill that is currently awaiting the Governor’s signature.
- Advocating Beyond State Legislatures
Progress isn’t just happening in state legislatures. Across the country, AARP is fighting for judicial and executive alternatives to reform adult guardianship systems, like creating WINGS, or Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders. WINGS are court-community partnerships that identify what does and does not work in the state’s guardianship system. AARP state offices have been engaged actively as community stakeholders in WINGS groups since 2013 and have helped adopt court administrative rule changes, and create educational and training materials for professional and family guardians. Currently, 25 states have WINGS or similarly structured groups focused on guardianship reforms.
This year, AARP state offices in Alabama, Kentucky, and Wisconsin worked with their respective state WINGS group to improve adult guardianship laws and practices.
While we have made great strides to update—and strengthen—state adult guardianship systems, our work is far from done. AARP will continue to fight to protect vulnerable adults who count on their guardians for vital decision-making and support, and to make sure guardians have the training and tools necessary to take on their important responsibilities.
Would you like to volunteer with AARP? Visit aarp.org/getinvolved.
To stay up to date on our work in your state, and nationwide, sign up for our e-alerts AARP Advocates e-newsletter, follow me on Twitter @roamthedomes, or visit your state Web page.
Elaine Ryan is the vice president of state advocacy and strategy integration (SASI) for AARP. She leads a team of dedicated legislative staff members who work with AARP state offices to advance advocacy with governors and state legislators, helping people 50-plus attain and maintain their health and financial security.