Difficulties in Talking About Incompetence and Incapacity, Part III

August 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

[This is Part III 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]

Conservatorships

The standard for appointing a conservator is stated in Miss. Code. Ann. § 93-13-251:

If a person is incapable of managing his own estate by reason of advanced age, physical incapacity or mental weakness… the chancery court of the county wherein the person resides… upon the petition of the person or of one or more of his friends or relatives, may appoint a conservator to have charge and management of the property of the person and, if the court deems it advisable, also to have charge and custody of the person subject to the direction of the appointing court.

Several provisions are notable here: First, the test is “incapable of managing his own estate,” and, if that test is met, the chancellor can appoint a conservator who shall have charge of “the property of the person” and, if the chancellor deems advisable, have “charge and custody of the person,” subject to court direction. The subject of a conservatorship has the same limitation on their ability to make a contract as a minor. Miss. Code. Ann. § 93-13-261.

The statute for conservatorships was adopted because of a need for protective services for adults who were not incapacitated as defined in the guardianship statutes. The leading case on the conservatorship statutes, Harvey v. Meador, 459 So.2d 288, 291-292 (Miss. 1984), described this history:

In recent decades there has been an increased number of older adults in our society who possess assets in need of protective services provided through guardianships. But modification of laws have broadened the definition of persons for whom assistance can be afforded by the courts, and such statutes do not restrict such protection only to the adult incompetent or insane.

Noting that trend in our society, the Mississippi Legislature incorporated into law in 1962 the conservatorship procedure for persons who, by reason of advanced age, physical incapacity, or mental weakness, were incapable of managing their own estates. Miss.Code Ann. § 93-13-251, et seq. (1972).

Thus the Legislature provided a new procedure through conservatorship for supervision of estates of older adults with physical incapacity or mental weakness, without the stigma of legally declaring the person non compos mentis. This additional procedure was intended to encompass a broader class of people than just the incompetent.

The Court began with a comparison of conditions that would or would not support the appointment of a conservator:

[M]ere advanced age alone is insufficient. Advanced age will naturally bring about decrease in physical prowess and mental efficiency. However, advanced age which renders an inability to manage property or which advanced age exhibits a serious degree of deterioration is contemplated by the statute.

The fact that physical incapacity exists is not in and of itself sufficient justification for the court taking jurisdiction of property involuntarily. A blind or deaf person may be capable of understanding matters of business and receiving communication on the subject. However, almost complete physical paralysis resulting from a cerebral hemorrhage rendering one incapable of managing the estate would qualify under the statute as physical incapacity. Loss v. Loss, 25 Ill.2d 515, 185 N.E.2d 228 (1962).

Mental weakness, as opposed to the more strict application of mental incompetency, is another statutory standard which also employs some vagueness. Mere lack of good business judgment, not amounting to some degree of wasted or dissipated property, is not a sufficient standard. Mental weakness which renders the subject incapable of understanding and acting within discretion in the ordinary affairs of life is sufficient. See Annot., 9 A.L.R.3d 796 (1966) (and cases cited therein).

Harvey, 459 So.2d at 292. From these considerations, the Court went on to adopt what it called “a management competency test as the standard to be applied under the conservatorship statute.” Id. The Court set forth factors to be examined in following the management competency test.

A test of management competency can be answered by considering the factors of: ability to manage, or improvident disposition, or dissipation of property, or susceptibility to influence or deception by others, or other similar factors.

Id. The Court of Appeals has suggested that any one of these factors is sufficient to allow appointment of a conservator. In re Conservator for Demoville, 856 So.2d 607, 609-610 (Miss. Ct. App. 2003). The Court of Appeals case In re Conservatorship of Hester, 989 So.2d 986, 989-90 (Miss. Ct. App. 2008) provides facts with a good example of the sort of proof that establishes the need for a conservatorship:

[A]t the time of trial, Emma was a seventy-six-year-old woman of below average intellect who had never concerned herself with thehandling of her own business affairs. Instead, she deferred to others to handle these matters in her stead, i.e., her husband, Elden, until his death, then [her live-in son,] Glen. Emma’s own testimony vividly illustrates her inability and/or refusal to deal with the management of her estate. She possesses little meaningful knowledge regarding the amount or whereabouts of her finances, and she has exhibited overall indifference to her business affairs and her living conditions alike. Emma has clearly misplaced her reliance on Glen who has dissipated her funds at will, using them as his own. Emma’s indifference to and/or ratification of Glen’s overreaching demonstrates the level of ease with which Emma may be taken advantage of. Although there was evidence that Emma was capable of performing basic tasks of self-preservation, the evidence supports the conclusion that Emma was incapable of managing her own affairs by reason of advanced age and mental weakness. The record also makes clear that one more responsible than Glen was needed to exercise care and custody over Emma’s estate and person.

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