Guardianship Services

Brief History

In 1984, Ursuline Senior Services established the Guardianship program through a contract with the Allegheny County Department of Aging. This program, now through the Area Agency on Aging (AAA) of the County Department of Human Services, serves persons who are more than 60 years old, primarily low income, and who are referred for guardianship by the AAA. This is what Ursuline calls the "Public" program. At any given time, there are 100-150 persons who have Guardians in the public program.

In addition, Ursuline offers what is called the Court Support program that is also part of the public program funded through the Allegheny County contract. Court Support Program referrals come from the Orphans' Court division of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, or from family members, attorneys, nursing homes, the Veterans' Administration, hospitals, or other institutions. This was added to the AAA contract once the need for Guardianship services for this primarily indigent population was identified.

What is Guardianship?

"Guardianships are established only through a legal process and are subject to the supervision of the court. . . . All guardianships should be based on the decision-making capacity of the individual without regard to the mental or medical diagnosis. Every guardianship should be designed and limited to meet the individual's needs. All individuals should be presumed competent until a court proceeding determines otherwise." (National Guardianship Association: The Fundamentals of Guardianship: What Every Guardian Needs to Know)

USS provides Guardians of Person and/or Guardians of Estate as the court appoints for people who are legally declared incapacitated in Orphans' Courts in a number of counties in Western Pennsylvania. Once Ursuline Senior Services is appointed as guardian by an Orphans' Court judge, our duty is follow what each individual court order states. Overall, Guardians act "in the best interest" of their wards to make decisions for their health, safety, and physical and financial welfare. Ursuline Guardians are available 24/7 every day of the year through our After Hours On Call system.

The Public Guardianship Program

The Allegheny County Area Agency on Aging (AAA) makes the referrals to the public guardianship program for individuals over the age of 60 years. These are people who have no responsible caregiver. The AAA monitors the work of the Guardianship program through monthly monitoring visits. In addition, Ursuline Senior Services entered into a contract with Allegheny County to serve as the guardian for residents referred who reside in the four Kane Regional Centers.

The Private or Fee-for-Service Guardianship Program

Referrals for the Private or Fee-for-Service Program come from attorneys, hospitals, long term care facilities or family members of those in need of Guardianship. When wards enter the program with substantial assets, they receive the same services as all other wards, but they are billed for Guardianship Services at rate of $65.00 per hour or tenths thereof. All wards adjudicated in the Orphans' Courts of counties other than Allegheny County are considered part of the "Private" program but only those in the Fee-for-Service Program are billed at an hourly rate.

Durable Powers of Attorney (DPOA)

Powers of Attorney or Durable Powers of Attorney are documents usually completed through an attorney which allow another person to act as "agent in fact" for the person. DPOA is a less restrictive alternative to guardianship which, when used in the best interest of the person, can be very helpful. However, because there is no supervision by a court, new documents can be signed appointing different persons, thus problems can arise. Occasionally, the Guardianship Program Director or out-of-county Program Coordinator will agree to serve as Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) for clients who have capacity, need those services and have no family members or friends to act on their behalf. DPOA services are billed at the same rate as fee-for-service guardianships and when signed, USS usually provides the same services as offered to guardianship wards.

Who Needs a Guardian?

The basic reason that a person needs a legal guardian is because he or she lacks "capacity." Defined briefly, capacity means the ability to make and/or communicate effective decisions for his or her own health, safety, welfare and finances. If someone has signed a Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) when she or he still had capacity, usually Guardianship is not needed. When a person has no one willing to act on his or her behalf in the medical and financial arenas, or family members are in conflict about which one should assume responsibility, and a psychologist or psychiatrist has determined that the person cannot act for him or herself, then Guardianship proceedings can be initiated by an attorney.

The Guardianship Process, Briefly

The entire process to obtain a Guardian may take six to eight weeks in Allegheny County, perhaps less time in other counties. The process begins with an attorney (hopefully one experienced in Guardianship), who files a petition with Orphans' Court on behalf of the alleged incapacitated person requesting that the person be declared incapacitated (petitioner) and that a Guardian be appointed. The petition states why guardianship is needed, any known family members, and who has consented to serve as guardian. The alleged incapacitated person can also be represented by an attorney. At the hearing, testimony is presented by the petitioner, the person who has agreed to serve as guardian and other interested persons, sometimes including the alleged incapacitated person. Usually a deposition is included in the court transcript from a psychiatrist or psychologist who stated why s/he believes the person is incapacitated and that a guardian is needed. The judge ultimately decides whether the person is incapacitated or not and appoints a guardian or guardians and signs a court order stating that the person is incapacitated and who the guardian or guardians are. Ursuline Senior Services is appointed Guardian of Person and/or Estate as an agency, rather than as an individual so that when necessary, different people may serve that ward as his or her guardians. As court orders state, an initial inventory must be completed and all Guardians must complete Annual Reports to the Court for each ward which are submitted to the correct Orphans' Court, detailing the medical, mental and financial status and progress of each ward.

Guardians of Person

Overall Guardians of Person (GOPs) make medical, placement and end-of-life decisions. Ursuline Senior Services employs six full-time and one part-time Guardians of Person. In addition, the Program Director and Program Coordinators sometimes serve as GOPs. The Guardians of Person are responsible for ensuring that the day-to-day needs of their wards are met, including safety and appropriate medical care. GOPs monitor and evaluate the care given to their wards by visiting them face-to-face for at least an hour every month, keeping in touch with their medical personnel and attending quarterly Care Conferences for wards in skilled nursing facilities (nursing homes). In addition, they shop for items their wards need or want, arrange and accompany them to medical appointments, help them celebrate their birthdays and when necessary, find alternative living situations. Approximately one third of our wards have no living family members, so their GOPs are the only "family" they have. When there are family members who desire to be involved, GOPs keep in touch with families about the progress of their loved ones.

Guardians of Estate

Guardians of Estate (GOEs) marshal all the assets and utilize all their income and assets for the care of each ward. Ursuline Senior Services employs four full-time Guardians of Estate, in addition to our Real Estate Specialist who is responsible for taking care of or selling wards' homes to utilize the funds for their care. He, along with the Program Director and Program Coordinators, serve as Guardians of Estate for some wards. GOEs marshal bank accounts, stocks, bonds, life insurance policies, real estate, personal possessions and automobiles as well as income from social security, pensions and trusts to use for the care of their wards. They are responsible for creating budgets for each of their wards and setting up Irrevocable Burial Reserve accounts at banks if no funeral and burial arrangements had been made and paid for prior to Guardianship. GOPs and GOEs work together with the wards and their family members to make final arrangements that the wards can afford and that are satisfactory to them and their families. Each GOE has a "fiduciary duty" to protect the rights and property of their wards.

Services Outside of Allegheny County

In addition to Allegheny County, Ursuline Senior Services provides guardianship services for wards residing in the following counties: Armstrong, Beaver, Blair, Butler, Cambria, Crawford, Erie, Indiana, Jefferson, Lawrence, Mercer, Somerset, Venango, Washington and Westmoreland.

Summary and Future Directions

In 2011, Ursuline Senior Services serves as guardian for approximately 250 wards residing in 15 counties in Western Pennsylvania. Ursuline Senior Services is a member agency of the National Guardianship Association (NGA) and Ursuline guardians follow NGA standards and guidelines. Currently, more than one third of the Guardianship staff consists of National Certified Guardians.

Today, Ursuline Senior Services continues to be the only nonprofit agency in Allegheny County and in Western Pennsylvania to provide guardianship services for this segment of the population. As the only private, nonprofit organization with a contract for Guardianship Services through the County Area Agency on Aging in Western Pennsylvania, Ursuline Senior Services Executive Director and Guardianship Program Director have met with the Administrators or Executive Directors of the Area Agencies on Aging in 17 counties in Western Pennsylvania to inform them about our program and the possibility of utilizing Ursuline Senior Services for Guardianship services in their respective counties.

For more information on Guardianship Services contact us at 412-345-0144 ext. 258 or guardianship@ursulineseniors.org