Appointment of a Legal Guardian

If an individual lacks the mental capacity necessary to make rational choices, there are two ways recognized by the law for proving a substitute decision maker: (1) the individual, while he was still competent, designated someone to be their agent, also known as an attorney-in-fact, by signing a power of attorney, or (2) the state, acting through the courts, may appoint a substitute decision maker known as a guardian (also sometimes called a “conservator”), for the incapacitated individual.

Power of Attorney

A "power of attorney" is a document which is signed by an individual (the "principal") appointing another person or persons (called the "attorney-in-fact" or "agent") to act for and on behalf of the principal. If the power of attorney authorizes the agent to act for the principal in almost all circumstances, it is called a "general" power of attorney. If the power of attorney is effective even if the principal is disabled or incompetent, it is called a "durable" power of attorney.

A person executing a durable general power of attorney naming a husband, wife, child, or other family member as attorney-in-fact authorizes that family member to manage his or her financial and personal affairs even after incapacity, avoiding the need for any guardianship.

Spouse Has No Legal Authority

Just because you are married does not give you legal authority over the property and person of your spouse. It is absolutely essential that you give your spouse, or some other person you trust, power of attorney. If your spouse becomes incapacitated and you don’t hold his or her power of attorney, you cannot sell the home you own jointly, cannot make withdrawals from your spouse’s IRA or other retirement plan, and cannot act for your spouse in any other legal capacity. If you don’t have a power of attorney, the only other alternative is a court appointed guardian.

Guardianship

The court procedure is termed a “guardianship” in Pennsylvania, In some other states, the procedure is referred to as a “conservatorship.” The individual for whom a guardian has been appointed is called a “ward.” Sometimes the ward is referred to as an “incapacitated person,” which has replaced the old-fashioned and offensive nomenclature of an “incompetent person.”
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Capacity to Contract 

Eccentricity or lack of prudence is not incapacity. In the words of Diana Romano:

“The lawyer’s task when considering the legal standard of competency is to be able effectively to distinguish foolish, socially deviant, risky, or simply “crazy” choices made competently from comparable choices made incompetently. “

People generally have the freedom to contract. Nevertheless, sometimes the law deems people unable to make decisions in their best interest. Minors, people with a mental disability, those who are in bankruptcy or people who have impaired judgment due to illness, disability, hypnosis, alcohol or drugs do not have capacity to contract.

In order to be bound by a contract, a person must have the legal ability to form a contract in the first place. This legal ability is called the capacity to contract. A person who is unable, due to age or mental impairment, to understand what she is doing when she signs a contract may lack capacity to contract.

If a person has a legal guardian and a court has made a determination that he or she is incapacitated, that person completely lacks the capacity to contract. Any contract signed by a person who has a legally appointed guardian is void. Many courts have held, however, that a person who is under legal guardianship may make a will if the person has testamentary capacity. The legal capacity required to make an enforceable contract is higher than that required to make a will.

A person may have a physical condition or illness which prevents him or her from performing at the levels expected of other persons of comparable age. If such a person cannot care for himself or herself, or acts in ways that are against his or her interests, such a person is entitled to the protection of the state to make sure they are not abused or exploited. Examples of physical conditions that can cause the loss of capacity to make contracts include paralysis, delirium, strokes, Huntington’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or dementia. Merely having the condition does not make the person incapacitated. The condition must have sufficiently affected the intellect so that the person cannot comprehend the nature and character of the transaction. If the person cannot comprehend the nature and character of his acts, any contracts or agreements such a person makes are voidable. Any contract may be ratified or disaffirmed by the person when he or she regains full capacity, or it can be ratified or disaffirmed by the person’s agent acting under a power of attorney. If the person’s condition is severe enough, the court may appoint a legal guardian.

Legal capacity is a flexible concept. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s suggests diminished capacity, but you can not assume that a person is incompetent to contract because of such a diagnosis. Capacity must be viewed in terms of a person’s ability to perform a specific task. A person may be competent for some tasks, but lack capacity for others.

In the Pennsylvania case of Taylor v. Avi, 272 Pa. Super. 291 (1979) 1. 415 A.2d 894plaintiff sought to void a release she had signed after a car accident in which she sustained a head injury which left her with impaired memory, decreased ability to concentrate on such things as reading, and increased irritability. Citing a 1929 will case, Lawrence’s Estate, 286 Pa. 58, 65, 132 A. 786, 789 (1926), the court said that “"[f]ailure of memory does not prove incapacity, unless it is total or so extended as to make incapacity practically certain. A testator may not be able at all times to recollect the names of persons or families of those with whom he has been intimately acquainted . . . and yet his understanding of the ordinary transactions of his life may be sound."

The standard announced by the court in Taylor is that mere weakness of intellect resulting
from sickness or old age is not legal grounds to set aside an executed contract if sufficient intelligence remains to comprehend the nature and character of the transaction, and no evidence of fraud, mutual mistake or undue influence is present.

Some cases are obvious. The family of an Oregon man with Alzheimer’s succeeded in voiding his contracts – he bought 7 cars from the same car dealer in one month.

What about drinking and substance abuse? While a person may consume enough alcohol and/or drugs to reduce or eliminate his or her ability to understand what he or she is doing, such conditions are self-induced. The law does not generally allow the intoxication or drugged state to be raised as an excuse. There are cases where a contract is voidable when an intoxicated party cannot understand the nature and consequences of the transaction and the other party is aware of the intoxication. Compulsive and chronic intoxication and abuse may constitute a mental illness. A sober party who takes advantage of a vulnerable drunk may be guilty of fraud or undue influence.


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