Difficulties in Talking About Incompetence and Incapacity, Part II

August 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

[This is Part II of a paper by Attorney Tom Freeland, IV, of Oxford, presented at a seminar sponsored by the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services Elder Law Project, Jennie Kilgore, Director]

New Statute Relating to Guardianships and Conservatorships

In the most recent term, the legislature passed Senate Bill 2240, [Fn 1] which made substantial additions and some changes to the statutes governing conservatorships and guardianships. Most of the new provisions related to multi-state issues and jurisdiction. There is a provision defining conservator:

[Fn 1] The full statute may be found at: http://billstatus.ls.state.ms.us/documents/2014/pdf/SB/2200-2299/SB2240SG.pdf

“Conservator” means a person appointed by the court to administer the property of an adult, including a person appointed under Section 93-13-251 et seq.

The cited code sections are those for conservatorships; it is not clear why the word “including” is used. There is a provision defining guardian:

“Guardian” means a person appointed by the court to make decisions regarding the person of an adult, including a person appointed under Section 931-13-111 and Sections 931-13-121 through 93-13-135.

The cited sections are the guardianship statutes.

These provisions have been described as clarifying the distinction between a conservatorship and guardianship. [Fn 2] In one aspect, it is confusing. Under prior law, the conservatorship statute provided for a conservator “to have charge and management of the property” of the subject, or, if the court saw fit, the person of the adult. Miss. Code. Ann. § 93-13-251. This provision is explicitly carried forward by Senate Bill 2240. It is not entirely clear how these different definitions (“managing” property and “having charge and custody of the person” versus “mak[ing] decisions regarding the person of an adult…”) will work in practice, if they are different at all. Further evidence that they may not be different is found in another statutory provision, Miss. Code Ann. § 93-13-261, which defines the powers of a conservator as the same as those of the guardian of a minor.

[Fn 2] Judge Primeaux on his blog, which is one of the best legal resources on the internet for Mississippi lawyers, particularly those in chancery court, described the definitions as clarifying. https://chancery12.wordpress.com/2014/07/10/new-procedures-in-adult-guardianships-and-conservatorships/

The statute also defines an “Incapacitated person” as “an adult for whom a guardian has been appointed….” This highlights a distinction between conservatorships and guardianships that will be discussed, below, in the section on conservatorships: An adult under a guardianship is said to be “incapacitated,” while the subject of a conservatorship is “incompetent.”

Guardianships

Incapacity requiring a guardianship for an adult comes the closest to having a statutory definition. In a chapter titled, “Persons in Need of Mental Treatment,” Miss. Code Ann. §93-13-111 provides:

The chancellor may appoint guardians of the person and estate, or either, of persons found to be in need of mental treatment as defined in Section 41-21-61 et seq. and incapable of taking care of his person and property, upon the motion of the chancellor or clerk of the chancery court, or upon the application of relatives or friends of such persons or upon the application of any other interested party.

This seems to require both a showing of “need of mental treatment” and that the person is “incapable of taking care of his person and property.” The statute then restates the requirement but seems to say that either showing would suffice:

If the chancellor should find from the evidence that such person is in need of mental treatment and incapable of taking care of his estate and person, or either, the chancellor shall appoint a guardian of such person’s estate and person, or either, as the case may be.

The language stating it can be “either” here in the statement of the required proof and, later, in  the description of the contents of a petition suggests that either would suffice. The statutory provision referred to by the guardianship statute does not define persons in need of mental treatment. Instead it defines a “Mentally ill person” and a “Mentally retarded person.” Miss. Code. Ann. § 41-21-61 (e) and (f). It is important to note that chapter 41-21 is the part of the code that provides for a commitment proceeding; essentially for a chancellor to find a person is in need of mental treatment, the chancellor must find that the person is subject to being committed. [Fn 3] The statutory definition may be as important for what it excludes at the end as it is for what it includes at the beginning. It provides:

(e) “Person with mental illness” means any person who has a substantial psychiatric disorder of thought, mood, perception, orientation, or memory which grossly impairs judgment, behavior, capacity to recognize reality, or to reason or understand, which (i) is manifested by instances of grossly disturbed behavior or faulty perceptions; and (ii) poses a substantial likelihood of physical harm to himself or others as demonstrated by (A) a recent attempt or threat to physically harm himself or others, or (B) a failure to provide necessary food, clothing, shelter or medical care for himself, as a result of the impairment. “Person with mental illness” includes a person who, based on treatment history and other applicable psychiatric indicia, is in need of treatment in order to prevent further disability or deterioration which would predictably result in dangerousness to himself or others when his current mental illness limits or negates his ability to make an informed decision to seek or comply with recommended treatment. “Person with mental illness” does not include a person having only one or more of the following conditions: (1) epilepsy, (2) an intellectual disability, (3) brief periods of intoxication caused by alcohol or drugs, (4) dependence upon or addiction to any alcohol or drugs, or (5) senile dementia.

[Fn 3] Beyond the definition of a mentally ill person, the procedures in the guardianship statutes are different than the procedures in the commitment proceeding statutes. Commitment proceeding statutes provide that a relative “may make affidavit” that includes facts relating to why the commitment is needed. Miss. Code. Ann. § 41-21-65. They provide that, after the hearing, the chancellor “shall forthwith appoint” either two physicians or a physician and a psychologist to conduct a physical and mental examination of the person. Miss. Code. Ann. § 41-21-67. There are no parallel provisions in the guardianship statute.

If by “person in need of mental treatment,” Miss. Code Ann. §93-13-111 means “person with mental illness,” then persons with an intellectual disability or senile dementia could not be placed in guardianships under that part of the test. They are specifically excluded. [Fn 4] The statute goes on with another definition:

(f) “Person with an intellectual disability” means any person (i) who has been diagnosed as having substantial limitations in present functioning, manifested before age eighteen (18), characterized by significantly subaverage intellectual functioning, existing concurrently with related limitations in two (2) or more of the following applicable adaptive skill areas: communication, self-care, home living, social skills, community use, self-direction, health and safety, functional academics, leisure and work, and (ii) whose recent conduct is a result of having an intellectual disability and poses a substantial likelihood of physical harm to himself or others in that there has been (A) a recent attempt or threat to physically harm himself or others, or (B) a failure and inability to provide necessary food, clothing, shelter, safety, or medical care for himself.

[Fn 4] That infirmities of aging do not support appointment of a guardian is confirmed by Miss. Code. Ann. § 93-13-121, which covers appointment of a guardianship for an adult who had been appointed an out-of-state guardian. It requires that the court find that the ward is now a resident of this state and is incompetent to manage his estate, but that “infirmities of old age shall not be considered elements of infirmities.”

Miss. Code Ann. § 41-21-61 (f). The language about the incompetencies required to appoint a guardian in this paragraph—”failure to provide necessary food, clothing, shelter, safety, or medical care for himself”—would seem almost identical to the second requirement of Miss. Code. Ann. § 93-13-11— “incapable of taking care of his estate and person.”

The code provides that a guardianship proceeding can be begun by the chancellor’s own motion, a motion from the chancery clerk, or a motion by “relatives or friends of such persons” or “the application of any other interested party.” Miss. Code. Ann. § 93-13-111. The petition is required to be sworn. It must be: “a sworn petition in the chancery court of the county of the residence of such person, setting forth that such person is in need of mental treatment and incapable of taking care of his person and estate, or either.” A guardianship proceeding begins quickly—once a petition is filed, a hearing can be had on five days notice to the potential ward. Id.

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