For years I had heard about this step in the transition to adulthood and I thought I knew what it meant. But as with many novel things, what we know and what we think we know are not the same. It’s like the difference between driving to a new location and being driven there. When you drive, you are much more aware of the process.

Yesterday was our daughter’s guardianship hearing.  As her 18th birthday approaches, we are methodically going down the list of “things to do” and this was a big one. For those who may take this step one day, I offer this insight.

We had been told that we could apply for guardianship on our own or have an attorney help us. Since we had already enlisted legal guidance for setting up a special needs trust and taking care of other estate planning issues (such as wills and advance directives), we bundled it all together and got help. Here is what we learned in the process.

Why is guardianship necessary?

Parents are guardians to minor children under the age of 18. At 18, our kids legally are considered adults with legal rights and we are no longer their guardians unless we are appointed so. Soon after our typically-developing son turned 18, our doctor’s office called with the results of his strep test. He was at school so I said I’d pass the results on to him but the nurse wouldn’t share that with me. He was an adult and hadn’t signed consent for that information to be shared.

Our daughter with autism isn’t going to be able to handle medical or financial matters and will always need someone to do this on her behalf so we petitioned for legal guardianship. Guardianship can be broad or it can be limited depending upon the needs and abilities of the child.

What are the steps in guardianship?

For detailed information, check out this helpful King County website, complete with step-by-step directions, or look for your county’s court forms online.

As I recall the steps, they are:

  1. A petition for guardianship is filed with your county
  1. A guardian ad litem (this person is not a guardian in the same way you are – it is a temporary assignment for this process) is appointed by the court to assess your child’s need for guardianship, explain the process to your child, and to represent your child’s interests to the court
  1. Prospective guardians/parents and their child receive notice in the mail regarding the petition and next steps. Your child must personally be served these papers (serving her was . . . interesting, to say the least!)
  1. Prospective guardians/parents complete the guardianship training (we had to watch a video online)
  1. Guardian ad litem meets with your child for assessment and to explain the process to him/her (I was out of the room when he spoke with my daughter)
  1. Provider (such as doctor or psychologist) meets with your child (there is a time frame in which this must be done and the report written) and completes a form/report on your child’s diagnosis, adaptive functioning, deficits in judgment/decision-making, need for guardianship
  1. Reports are submitted to the court and reviewed by the judge/commissioner
  1. Prospective guardians/parents attend brief hearing along with their attorney and guardian ad litem. The court reports on decision to grant guardianship and informs of what is required in the role of guardian (there are reporting requirements, such as yearly or every three years). The child may or may not be at the hearing. In our case, we said it would be a hardship for her to attend so her attendance was waived. Parents then take an oath to uphold the responsibilities of guardianship.
  1. Papers are filed and parents receive guardianship documents including reporting requirements

Now what? 

Now that we are through this step, I’d say that nothing has changed except that in the eyes of the law, we are not just her lovingly devoted parents but also legally responsible for all decisions regarding her “person and estate” including health/medical and all things financial. (There are limited guardianships as well such as guardianship granted for estate but not person.)

Being in court though, it did feel – what’s the right word? Official. It was clear that the court takes this matter seriously and expects parents to as well. It was also a bit emotional with the finality of acceptance that she won’t launch into adulthood the way her brother did. We’ve known that for years of course, but yesterday it came sharply into focus.