Teaching parents about guardianship of disabled children

Kaye Dent, an attorney with Frisse & Brewster Law Offices in Effingham speaks about guardianship vs powers of attorney at a talk for parents with disabled children entering adulthood. Dawn Schabbing photo

EFFINGHAM — Sometimes in life, we need a little help from the experts.

The Community and Residential Services Authority, Family Matters Parent Training and Information Center, along with The Autism Program at CTF Illinois, teamed up to host a free workshop for parents with special needs children, in order to help guide them through the transition into adulthood.

Kaye Dent, an attorney with Frisse & Brewster Law Offices in Effingham, specializes in disability and elder law. Dent spoke at the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Office in Effingham, about different avenues such as guardianship, powers of attorney, and other alternatives for families. About 20 people attended.

“If you have a child with special needs, once they turn 17, you need to start thinking about what's going to happen when they turn 18 and you are no longer legally in control of their life,” said Dent.

During this transition period, parents need to determine such things as whether their child needs a guardian, or if they need a powers of attorney. Also, parents should be networking with agencies such Family Matters, The Autism Program at CTF Illinois and Community and Residential Services Authority, among others.

“Find support that is relative to your child's needs and ask what are the other support they need while they are transitioning, and also possibly, an attorney,” said Dent. “Any disability is one that results in special needs and keeps the child from being able to make all of their own decisions.”

Or it might be a situation that “in the foreseeable future” the child may not be able to make their own decisions, she explained.

The workshop was given to help parents know that once a child reaches age 18, the parent is no longer the child's legal guardian.

Kristin Gharst, regional coordinator for Community and Residential Services Authority, said the workshop was a collaboration of other agencies that invited Dent, who specializes in disability and elder law.

Guardianship is a way to protect those who cannot take care of themselves, make informed decisions or handle financial assets. The attorney outlined what is guardianship, and other alternatives that may be chosen if the person is capable of making some, but not all, decisions on their own.

Dent had worked with the disabled in high school and in college. She went on to earn a law degree, about the same time that the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. Among her law experience included working with a non-profit group that served exclusively people with disabilities.

Today, she helps families plan for the future, in the legal sense, including estate planning and special needs laws.

Dent explained that there are different kinds of guardianship and different kinds of powers of attorney for estate and health care needs.

“A person can be disabled in some way, but still be perfectly competent to sign the powers of attorney,” said Dent. “If the person understands who their family is, who they are and if they are oriented to time, and they know who they trust to handle their business or health care decisions, they can probably sign powers of attorney.”

POA, or what is a written authorization to represent a person, is the less expensive way and it keeps the child involved thereby maintaining maximum independence. The child may have a POA of their health care or estate management.

Or, in a guardianship of their health care or estate management, which is appointed by the court after reviewing documents from physicians about the disabled person's needs.

Dent reminded the parents in the room that having power of attorney over their child's financial matters doesn't give them power over everything.

“If there's something not covered in the POA document, the agent doesn't have the power to do it,” said Dent. “It is a set of instructions from the person signing the document saying 'I'm appointing this person as my agent and they can do these things.'”

While a POA can be revoked when the person assigning is competent, in a guardianship appointed by the court, you have a duty to act, until the court tells you otherwise.

“If you seek a guardianship, it has to have a physician's report,” said Dent. “The physician has to give an opinion that the alleged disabled person needs a guardian. And they have to state specific reasons for the court.”

The workshop included information such as the POA is decided by the disabled person's functioning, not a diagnosis. It keeps the person's dignity and prepares them for the most independence. Guardianship should be as narrowly tailored as possible.

Dent said while legal fees can add up, there are assistance agencies for civil matters, such as Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, and also local attorneys that provide pro bono services in some qualifying cases.

“There are ways around the expense, if you qualify financially,” said Dent. “Nobody should think there is a financial barrier for guardianship, if they need it.”

Dawn Schabbing can be reached at dawn.schabbing@effinghamdailynews.com or 217-347-7151, ext. 138

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