At a joint committee hearing, experts spoke about a Pennsylvania state bill that aims to strengthen guardianship laws, further protecting the rights of residents deemed incapable of making decisions. The Massachusetts House is currently discussing bill H.201: An Act Relative to Supported Decision-Making Agreements that was passed last year in the Senate. The Arc of Massachusetts shares details related to this act on their site, and we recommend that you reach out to your representative to support this bill. Supported Decision-Making (SDM) is an alternative to guardianship for some adults with disabilities or elders.

The Record Online’s article entitled, “Weak guardianship laws undermine personhood, experts warn,” reports that members of the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary and Aging and Youth committees heard testimony from experts who overwhelmingly believe guardianship should be used only as a last resort and are supportive of policies that offer more safeguards.

In her opening remarks, Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Dallas, majority chair of the Judiciary Committee – and the sole Republican sponsor of Senate Bill 506 – said the bill’s primary goals would be to ensure an attorney is provided to alleged incapacitated individuals; require courts consider less restrictive alternatives before appointing a guardian; and would need professional guardians to be certified.

Pennsylvania is one of only a few states that don’t require the appointment of counsel in guardianship proceedings. Instead, current law allows judges to use their discretion over whether to appoint an attorney. Moreover, there’s little oversight of professional guardians, and procedures vary from county to county.

Sen. Judy Ward, R-Lewistown, majority chair of the Committee on Aging and Youth, said appointing a guardian for someone is a serious step that must be taken with great caution and utmost respect for the person’s fundamental rights – a sentiment echoed by many others.

The state’s Guardian Tracking System, in use since 2019, lets judges across the state share and view information on prospective guardians, such as whether they have criminal records. It can also identify red flags on the spending of funds by a guardian.

As of the end of last year, 44% of the almost 19,000 Pennsylvanians currently under guardianship are adults over 60, and 62% of those cases have guardians that include one or more family members.

Attorney Jennifer Garman, director of government affairs for Disability Rights Pennsylvania, said guardianship largely happens to people without trained representation. She noted that in 2019, less than 18% of statewide cases were contested – with 45 out of 67 counties reporting no contested cases. Without counsel, many families don’t know there are alternatives or that they can go back to court to have the guardianship removed, if appropriate.

“Parents of young adults with disabilities are often misinformed by schools, health care providers, disability service providers, that guardianship is necessary when their child turns 18,” said Garman. She added that the bill would ensure alternatives to guardianship are explored. Read more in our article, Supported Decision-Making as an Alternative to Guardianship.

If you have questions about guardianship or alternatives to guardianship and how to support the decision making of disabled adults, please contact the specialized team at Special Needs Law Group of Massachusetts.  We work with each family individually to ensure that your disabled or elderly loved one is supported so that their voice and choices are honored and they have the specific support they need based on their abilities.