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  • Nicole J. Zuvich

Guardianship for a vulnerable adult

Updated: Sep 27

When a person reaches age 18, they are legally considered an adult, and New York law recognizes that adults should generally be trusted to make their own decisions about their health, finances and legal affairs. Other people may think their decisions are good or bad, but they have the right to make these decisions themselves.

However, in some exceptional circumstances, people are not capable of making these decisions themselves, and they need help from a trusted family member, friend or other person who has the legal power to make these decisions for them. This idea is the basis of New York’s guardianship law.

Incapacitated and disabled adults

The most typical scenario for a guardianship involves an elderly person who has lost capacity due to dementia or other issues. In these cases, a family member may be appointed as guardian.

There are also cases involving younger adults who are disabled or incapacitated due to injury, illness or chronic condition. These people may lack capacity permanently or temporarily. For instance, a 25-year-old who is incapacitated for months following a bad accident may need family members to make certain decisions for them until they are ready to make them on their own. In other cases, the adult may have a condition that will never improve.

New York law specifically calls for guardianship in cases involving people who are “mentally retarded or developmentally disabled” and have difficulty making decisions for themselves. In these cases, the affected person asks the Surrogate’s Court to establish a guardianship. The affected person can do this in person or through a legal representative.

Guardianship is a serious matter, and courts do not easily decide to give one person the right to make legal, financial and medical decisions for another adult. However, when done carefully, correctly and compassionately, guardianship can be a crucial way to protect the most vulnerable adults.

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