Public can comment on proposed changes to Missouri’s guardianship law

ST. LOUISFour years in the making, a task force last week finished a draft revision to a state law that affects some of Missouri’s most vulnerable residents — 30,000 wards or clients deemed too incapacitated to make decisions for themselves.

Another 23,000 cases involve minors whose parents were found unable to make choices for them.

The law covers people with mental illness, head injuries and other issues that cause them to have court-appointed guardians as substitute decision makers. Guardians typically have the ultimate say on anything from a ward’s roommate to personal property to life support.

“As we review the law, we are making sure people are protected before their basic civil liberties are taken from them,” said Dan Wheeler, a former probate commissioner in Jackson County who is part of the Missouri Working Interdisciplinary Network of Guardianship Stakeholders, or MO-WINGS.

MO-WINGS started meeting in 2012 to review and recommend changes to the 100-page guardianship law. The law last underwent a major revision in 1983.

“It’s good to look at any body of statutes at least every 20 years because things can get very outdated in the Missouri code if you aren’t careful,” said David English, a co-chair of the task force and law professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Among the possible changes, the task force seeks a better balance between safety for wards and protection of civil liberties. It wants to increase the possibility of a limited guardianship, so some wards can be more involved in decision making if a probate judge agrees that is appropriate, for instance to get permission to vote or change residences.

The task force wants to update the wording and organization of the statute so families can more easily understand the law before they lose parental rights, or the power to make decisions for spouses and relatives.

The proposed changes coincide with dramatic increases in the number of people the law affects.

Missouri had 29,908 adult wards under guardianship in 2014, a jump from 21,356 in 2001, according to Wheeler, who reviewed statistics provided by the Missouri Supreme Court. The number of minors under court-ordered guardianship doubled in that period, from 11,769 in 2001 to 23,239 in 2014. Those figures include people who have been given conservators to oversee financial decisions.

The number of elderly wards is expected to continue to rise as baby boomers age.

Meanwhile, heightened caseloads can take their toll on court-ordered guardians. Many are family members or friends. But the guardian of last resort is the public administrator — one in each county and the city of St. Louis. They take care of physical needs, placement in nursing homes or more restrictive environments for those who do not have anyone to care for them.

The decisions public administrators make also cover daily life, including whether their wards can drive, marry or divorce. Technically, wards aren’t even supposed to buy anything without permission.

Some wards have been debilitated by car accidents. Others have lost their mental ability to function over time because of dementia and associated age-related illnesses. Some are referred by hospitals that can’t discharge people who can’t take care of themselves.

“Today, I had to give consent to remove life support,” Jefferson County Deputy Public Administrator Mark DeClue said last month about a 79-year-old man who fell in a hospital. “You wouldn’t have wanted to talk to me three hours ago. I hardly knew this gentleman and he’s under my care. It’s not easy to say, ‘OK, let him go.’ ”

DeClue said the man became a ward in 2014 after he became depressed and combative. A probate court decided his family wasn’t able to make decisions for him.

DeClue said guardianship cases have “blossomed” in recent years. Ten or 15 years ago, he said the typical case involved an elderly person in a nursing home whose family stopped making payments. Now, he said, younger people with mental illness and drug issues are “coming our way very, very rapidly.”

St. Louis County Public Administrator Tom Arras said the whole idea is to protect a person who is not capable of making his or her own decisions. He’s concerned that proposals to update the guardianship law could pit the ward and guardian against each other.

“Reforms are going to make it harder for guardians to perform their function,” he said.

Christopher Cross, a court-appointed guardian from Springfield, Mo., said while reforms are needed he is concerned the wrong kind could cause “serious public safety risks when forensic clients are involved.”

At this point, the draft changes to the statute are only recommendations. Members of the MO-WINGS task force said public input will be sought until November. Until a website is developed, people can contact the Missouri Developmental Disabilities Council or co-chairs of the task force for comment.

A formal proposal is expected to be presented to the 2016 Legislature.


Public can comment on proposed changes to Missouri’s guardianship law
Jesse Bogan
May 12, 2015
St. Louis Post-Dispatch