People with bipolar disorder may become a danger to themselves and to others. Learn how legal guardianship works to protect them.
If you have a loved one with bipolar disorder, there may come a time when the disorder causes him to need your help, even though he may not want it.
“Although anyone over 18 is entitled to make their own health care decisions, if a person with bipolar disorder is a danger to themselves or others, any caregiver interested in the person’s welfare can ask a court to give them legal guardianship,” says Alice B. Taylor, a lawyer in Waltham, Mass., who deals with family law issues.
A legal guardian takes responsibility for the other person’s decisions. For someone with bipolar disorder, this can include decisions about legal matters, medical care, and living arrangements.
When Is Guardianship Necessary?
Bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness that causes extreme shifts in mood, with recurring episodes of mania and depression. Some symptoms of bipolar disorderthat may cause a person to be a danger to himself or others include:
- Extreme risk-taking behavior
- Making impulsive decisions regarding finances, sexual activity, and alcohol or drug use
- Inability to concentrate and make decisions
- Thoughts of suicide
Becoming a Legal Guardian
There are two ways to become a legal guardian. The person with bipolar disorder can ask the court to appoint a legal guardian. This is called a voluntary guardianship. If a caregiver becomes concerned that the loved one with bipolar disorder is in danger, but is not asking for help, the caregiver can also petition a court for involuntary guardianship. The caregiver who is asking the court to grant them guardianship is called the “petitioner,” and the person with bipolar disorder is called the “proposed ward.”
The process for filing a court petition for legal guardianship varies from state to state, but here are some basic steps involved:
- The petitioner must officially notify the proposed ward.
- The petition must be made public.
- The petitioner must present the court with a doctor’s certificate that supports the need for guardianship.
- The petitioner will usually have a lawyer helping him or her.
- The proposed ward has the right to be present and to have a lawyer.
- Witnesses can be called and examined by the judge or by the lawyers.
- After a hearing, the judge may grant temporary, limited, or total guardianship.
Protecting the Rights of the Bipolar Patient
“Courts are reluctant to grant a petition for legal guardianship,” says Taylor. “In recent years changes to legal guardianship laws have swung the pendulum back to protecting the rights of the proposed ward. In the past there was a ‘set it and forget it’ tendency that sometimes led to abuse.”
Some ways that the courts may protect the rights of the person with bipolar disorder include:
- Limiting the powers of the legal guardian
- Requiring frequent oversight of all the decisions made by the legal guardian
- Requiring the judge’s permission before selling property, changing living conditions, or making certain medical decisions
- Allowing the person with bipolar disease to ask the court to end the guardianship
- Protecting civil rights such as the right to vote, to privacy, to marry, and to have children
In an emergency situation the judge may appoint a temporary guardian immediately, but the legal guardianship process usually takes a month or more. Legal guardianship can be the best option in some cases, and most caregivers and courts do have the best interest of the person with bipolar disease as their main concern.
“Becoming a legal guardian is a big responsibility and can be a complicated legal process. One way to avoid the expense and the time is for people to plan ahead and have a valid health proxy and a durable power of attorney already in place. Assigning someone you trust to act as guardian in advance can help you bypass many of these the legal burdens,” advises Taylor.