Which is Better: Guardianship or Power of Attorney?

SEPTEMBER 8, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 32

Here’s a question we get asked a lot: “which is better for me to get for my mother — a guardianship or a power of attorney?” Sometimes the questioner is checking on the difference between a conservatorship and a power of attorney or (less commonly) a guardianship and a conservatorship. But the question almost always has the word “better” embedded somewhere.

The question itself is misleading, and our answer almost never satisfies. The problem is simple: if your aging parent needs someone to make decisions (medical, placement, financial or other decisions) for him or her, you almost never have a choice about whether to pursue getting a signed document (like a power of attorney) or a court order (like a guardianship or conservatorship). Why not? Because if your parent is able to sign a power of attorney, he or she is probably not a candidate for a guardianship or conservatorship. Conversely, if you could get a guardianship or conservatorship order, your parent probably can’t sign a power of attorney.

A word about language, and the peculiarities of Arizona law: in Arizona (and in some but by no means all other states) a “guardianship” is a court proceeding in which one person is given decision-making authority over another person’s medical care, placement and personal decisions. A “conservatorship” is a similar court proceeding, but with the end result that one person is given authority over another person’s finances. And Arizona does not have a procedure (as some other states do) for a “voluntary” conservatorship, which would allow the court to appoint a conservator even though the person in question is fully competent but willing to allow appointment of a conservator.

In order to have the court appoint a guardian or a conservator in Arizona, you would need to show that your parent (or other family member, or friend for whom you are ready and appropriate to act) is unable to make and communicate responsible decisions. That, actually, is the magic language for a guardianship; conservatorship requires you to be able to show that your parent, family member or friend is unable to provide proper management of his or her assets.

A power of attorney, on the other hand, does not involve courts at all. Signing a power of attorney is a voluntary act undertaken by a competent individual who understands the purpose and effect of his or her signature. As you can see, that is likely not possible for most people for whom a guardian and/or conservator could be appointed.

So the question is usually not which approach would be “better” — it is which approach is possible. If the individual is not able to sign a power of attorney, we usually add our own question to the mix: is getting a guardian and/or conservator appointed the best way to handle the problems that have arisen — is it even necessary to pursue guardianship or conservatorship?

Now pose the question differently. You are a fully competent adult, thinking about your future. You are worried about having someone available and able to take over your personal (health care) and financial decisions if you should be come unable to do so yourself. Is it better for you to sign a power of attorney, or should you simply rely on the legal system to establish a guardianship and/or conservatorship when the time comes for you?

The answer to THAT question is easy, at least in the vast majority of cases. The cost, difficulty, and invasion of your personal dignity involved in a guardianship/conservatorship almost always makes it better for you to sign a power of attorney now, while you can make your own choice. Who should NOT sign a power of attorney? Really only people who have no one trustworthy enough to take responsibility (and there are people in that unfortunate situation — to many people, in our experience) should make a conscious decision to NOT sign a power of attorney.

Notice that we have not distinguished here between (a) health care powers of attorney and (b) financial (or “general”) powers of attorney. That’s because the same values and decisions apply to both. But, in Arizona, at least, there is one important difference between the two levels of urgency: your next of kin (and some others, if you do not have close family members) might have the authority to make health care and even placement decisions for you even though you have not signed a power of attorney (and no court proceedings have been initiated). Family members — even spouses — do NOT have any authority to handle your finances without a power of attorney, however.

Which is better? If you are in a position to plan for yourself, it is almost always a good idea to choose an agent (you can choose different financial and health care agents, if you’d like) and sign powers of attorney. Do it now — don’t wait until you actually “need” the documents, because that will almost certainly be too late. Don’t rely on your belief that everyone knows what you want — that carries no weight in the legal system, unless it has been reduced to writing.

If you’re facing the problem from a child’s perspective, we’re sorry to say that it’s almost never relevant to tell you which approach is “better.” Usually it is a question of which is available. We can help, but it is likely to be more expensive and difficult if your parent (or spouse, or even child) didn’t get around to signing a power of attorney.

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