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Guardianships for Children With Special Needs

Many children with disabilities need specific guidance and assistance to make the best of the world around them. When they turn 18, however, the legal protections they had as children dissolve as they become legal adults. They have new rights and responsibilities, but there may be instances when they are not able to make complex decisions for themselves and may need someone to help them.

For example, disabled adults may need assistance in managing investments, completing tax forms and seeking legal remedies, if applicable. In these situations, establishing a legal guardianship is very helpful to protect disabled children as they transition to potentially vulnerable adults. This article generally explains what guardianships are, how they are established and the benefits of having them in New York. When considering establishing a legal guardian for your child or loved one, it is best to have the counsel of knowledgeable New York guardianship attorney.

Legal Guardianship

A guardianship is a legally protected relationship in which a person – the guardian – is allowed to make decisions on behalf of another person. The guardian is appointed by a judge to act on behalf of someone who cannot manage his or her own personal affairs. Guardianships are commonly used to benefit children, as they legally cannot enter into contracts or make legally binding decisions for themselves, but guardianships also can be used to protect disabled or incapacitated adults.

Guardians may help people make or finalize decisions regarding basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter as well as more complex matters like medical care and financial decisions. This is especially important for young adults who have never had the responsibility of making important decisions on their own or who do not have the capacity to understand the gravity or long-term consequences of their choices.

Under New York law, someone at least 18 years old may petition the court to become a guardian. Possible guardians include family members or other caregivers with good character. Two possible guardianships are:

  • Guardianship of the person: Permits the guardian to make decisions regarding the protected person’s daily life such as where to live and what type of medical care to receive
  • Guardianship of the property: Permits the guardian to make decisions about the protected person’s property and finances

Based on the circumstances, the court may grant a “limited guardianship” for either or both types of guardianships, allowing the guardian to make only certain decisions, or the court may order a “full guardianship” authorizing the guardian to make all decisions for the protected individual. In some cases a “special guardianship” is created for the limited purpose of helping the incapacitated person with protective arrangements.

Essentially, the court will grant the powers necessary to protect the incapacitated person. The person seeking to establish the guardianship bears the burden of proving that the protected person either consents to the guardianship or is unable to provide for his or her personal needs or property and financial management and cannot adequately understand and appreciate the nature and consequences of such inability, as specified in Article 81 of the New York Mental Hygiene Law.

In addition, another type of guardianship for developmentally disabled people is possible in New York under Article 17-A of the Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act. For a guardian to be appointed under this Act, the protected person must have been certified as incapable of managing him or herself and his or her affairs because of a developmental disability that is permanent or likely to continue indefinitely by two licensed medical professionals.

Full guardianship is granted under Article 17-A unless the protected person is substantially self-supported by employment. Then, a limited guardianship of the property may be granted over all property other than wages or earnings, according to the New York State Office of Children & Family Services.

Special Needs Trusts

While guardianships may be helpful for children with special needs embarking on adulthood, other legal processes exist to protect a vulnerable person’s assets. For example, a special needs trust may be established for the protected person through which the assets are owned and managed by an appointed trustee.

Also known as a “supplemental care trust,” this type of trust receives and manages money for the benefit of the disabled person while maintaining his or her eligibility for government services. In contrast, if money is reserved for the disabled individual through a traditional will, the person must use that money first for living expenses and healthcare until the money is depleted. During that period he or she is generally ineligible for government benefits.

Funds from a special needs trust can be used to pay for goods and services traditionally used by people with disabilities, including medical and dental expenses, transportation, maintenance or modification of furniture, special training or rehabilitation as well as computers and electronic equipment.

Other Asset Protection Strategies

Additionally, a durable power of attorney may be created so a specific person (or group of people) is responsible for making decisions on behalf of an incapacitated person. For people receiving government benefits, for example, another person could be deemed a representative payee. A power of attorney is a valuable option especially when a single transaction or transfer of property is involved.

If you have questions about guardianships or other legal protections for vulnerable individuals, an experienced estate planning lawyer can help you evaluate the need for a guardianship and compare the benefits to other forms of asset protection.