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AARP Alabama state director: Alabama’s seniors need a modernized guardianship system

It is often a difficult and heartbreaking decision. Someone in your life – usually an aging parent or other loved one – is at the point where they need some help in making vital decisions about matters such as where to live, how to manage their finances, or get the right medical care. While our most vulnerable seniors may need a legal guardian or conservator appointed by the courts, others may only need a more limited approach – one that allows them other less restrictive alternatives to still meet their individual needs.

Unfortunately, Alabama’s current guardianship laws are outdated, relying on a one size fits all, cookie-cutter approach that often robs seniors and people with disabilities of their rights, independence, and dignity. Recent news headlines about guardianship arrangements gone wrong have brought more public attention to this mostly hidden topic.

Alabama’s guardianship laws have not undergone a major revision since the 1980s. Stories of overly restrictive and even abusive use of current guardianship laws are among the many reasons why AARP strongly supports passage of the Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship and Other Protective Arrangements Act (UGCOPAA) in Alabama. The UGCOPAA would modernize Alabama’s current guardianship laws by addressing several critically needed reforms, including:

  • Prohibiting a court from issuing a full guardianship order when a less restrictive alternative is available and appropriate for the individual, such as a supported decision-making arrangement or technological assistance;
  • Requiring that each person under guardianship have an individualized plan that considers the person’s preferences and values;
  • Clarifying the legal duties of the guardian, including that the guardian must make the best decision for the individual under their care that they reasonably believe the person would make on their own unless doing so would cause harm;
  • Clarifying that the guardian must promote self-determination to the extent possible and encourage the individual’s participation in decisions;
  • Combating abuse and exploitation by, among other things, forbidding a guardian to restrict communication or visits from family and friends unless the court orders otherwise.

Adopting the UGCOPAA would not only help protect seniors and their rights, it would also support Alabama’s 760,000 family caregivers who make it possible for older parents, spouses, and other loved ones to live independently at home – where they want to be. These family caregivers help with everything from bathing and dressing to meals and transportation. Many also are empowered to make certain legal decisions in various roles such as holding power of attorney, health care proxy, and even serve as guardian or conservator. They deserve an effective, efficient and accountable guardianship system that provides them with the tools they need to make important decisions for their loved ones.

The absence of an effective guardianship system hurts vulnerable adults and their families, and wastes taxpayer money and time for state courts. The UGCOPAA would modernize current state law; provide for stronger, more effective forms of court oversight and enforcement; require exploration of less restrictive options before the appointment of a guardian; and, would promote autonomy, basic rights and dignity of the individual under guardianship.

Guardianship should be an option of last resort. But if it’s the necessary decision, let’s make sure seniors have options that best meet their needs, and without having to give up all of their rights. AARP urges the Alabama Legislature to enact the Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship and Other Protective Arrangements Act now to bring our guardianship system into the 21st century.

Candi Williams is the AARP Alabama state director

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