APRIL 11, 2005 VOLUME 12, NUMBER 41
When the legal system takes over decision-making and care of an incapacitated adult, there is a struggle between competing goals. It is important to provide adequate protection and supervision, but it is also important to maintain the ward’s personal autonomy and self-determination. It is often difficult to decide how much latitude to give to an incapacitated ward. Even the court system charged with overseeing that balancing act can sometimes be too restrictive.
Sheri Rosengarten was the subject of a guardianship in Pennsylvania. Before the onset of her mental illness she had established a revocable living trust naming herself and her brother David as co-trustees. Unfortunately, her brother had mismanaged her trust assets after she became incapacitated, and so her personal and legal affairs were in some disarray.
The court appointed a non-family member, lawyer Susan B. Smith, to serve as Ms. Rosengarten’s guardian (of both her person and estate—what would be called a guardian and conservator in Arizona). Thereafter Ms. Smith began to manage Ms. Rosengarten’s personal and financial affairs, although assets in her living trust were being managed by her father as successor trustee.
Because Ms. Rosengarten was in an assisted living facility, her guardian decided it was time to sell her residence and add the proceeds to the assets under management. Ms. Rosengarten objected (as did her father), thinking that she might some day be improved enough to return to her home. In the meantime she thought it made sense to rent the house out—perhaps as a group home that could be tailor-made for her as her condition improved.
Although the court had appointed an attorney to represent Ms. Rosengarten in the guardianship proceeding, she wanted to choose a different attorney and argue against the sale of her home. The court, however, refused to hear from the lawyer she had hired, insisting that the attorney previously appointed could represent her interests. After a brief hearing the judge ordered that Ms. Rosengarten’s home should be sold, and the proceeds delivered to Ms. Smith rather than held in her living trust.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court (that state’s intermediate appellate court) reversed the trial judge’s holdings and remanded the case back to the trial court. Once she had raised the argument that she was no longer incapacitated, said the appellate judges, the first question to be addressed was whether a guardianship was still necessary. At that hearing Ms. Rosengarten should of course be allowed to choose her attorney unless it could be shown that she lacked capacity to even enter into a lawyer-client relationship, and her wishes should be respected to the fullest extent possible. Estate of Rosengarten, March 24, 2005.