By Sally M. Wagley, Maine elder law attorney
For most children, age 18 is regarded as a significant milestone, another marker on the road to independence. However, when a child has a mental or emotional disability, he or she may continue to be dependent on parents for decisions about living arrangements, health care, social services and finances. Once a child in Maine turns 18, a parent no longer has legal authority to make the child’s decisions. Health care providers may deny the parent access to the child’s medical information, and financial institutions may deny the parent access to the child’s money. In my role as a “special needs” lawyer, I help families in this time of transition.
Some children with disabilities may have the capacity and understanding to delegate authority to a parent under a durable financial power of attorney or health care directive. This is a simple document which can be executed in a lawyer’s office, with a minimum of time and expense. Other children, however, may be so disabled that they are unable to understand and to sign such a document. In this situation, the parent should seek to be appointed as the child’s guardian (and perhaps conservator as well, as discussed below).
Maine’s county probate courts are the courts which handle guardianship matters. These are the steps to obtaining guardianship of an adult disabled child in Maine:
1. Petition for appointment of guardian: The parent files a petition and related forms asking the court to appoint the parent as the child’s guardian and files the papers with the court.
2. Physician’s/psychologist’s report: A professional (such as the child’s physician) fills out a court form stating that the child needs a guardian.
3. Appointment of visitor: The court appoints a visitor to meet with the child and parents and report back to the court as to whether a guardianship is appropriate.
4. Hearing: A hearing is scheduled. Important people in the child’s life receive notice of the hearing. In many of Maine’s 16 probate courts, the hearing is fairly relaxed. The judge may ask a few questions and may make sure that the guardian understands his or her responsibilities. If it is clear to the judge that the appointment of a guardian is in the child’s best interest, the judge will immediately issue an order appointing the parent as the child’s guardian.
5. Conservatorship: If the child has money or other assets in excess of $5000, the parent may also need to seek appointment as the child’s conservator in order to be able to handle the child’s funds. This request should be made to the court at the same time as guardianship is requested.
The Maine probate courts try to make it as simple as possible for parents in this situation to become their child’s guardian. However, to the uninitiated, the process may be daunting. As attorneys with expertise in helping families with disabled children, we can help you either by representing you in the guardianship matter (appearing with you in court), or we can simply assist you with the paperwork, so that you can represent yourself. If you would like our help, please contact us for an appointment, firstname.lastname@example.org.