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February 24, 2023 Feature

Improving Adult Guardianship Procedures—Working with WINGS

By Hon. David M. Connors

Guardianship is important. On the one hand, persons suffering from disability or dementia, or many other difficulties, often desperately need the assistance of good guardians and conservators. On the other hand, short of sending a defendant to prison for life without parole, there is very little that a state court can do to more dramatically strip an individual of their personal liberty than to appoint a guardian with unlimited powers. Sadly, there have been many examples of misuse of guardianship and conservatorship powers in recent years. Several states have had to grapple with the aftermath of embarrassing and high-profile guardianship or conservatorship disputes.

To deal proactively with difficult guardianship-related issues, groups that became known as the Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders (WINGS) were initially formed in the 2011–2013 time period, prompted in large part by the American Bar Association Commission on Law and Aging, the National Guardianship Network, and the National Center for State Courts. The earliest WINGS groups were established in New York, Oregon, Texas, and Utah, with the help of grant funding from the State Justice Institute. The purpose of this article is to describe the collaborative efforts between the Utah courts and the Utah WINGS project and encourage other states to continue efforts to address and improve adult guardianship processes.

From its earliest days, the Utah WINGS project has been staffed and supported by the Utah court system, acting through its Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC). A sitting state district court judge has always been the chair of the WINGS group. As outlined in its bylaws, the mission of Utah WINGS is to bring together stakeholders from various disciplines to improve the state’s guardianship and conservatorship services and processes.

To carry out its mission, Utah WINGS:

  • supports policy initiatives for the enhancement of guardianship and related infrastructure;
  • identifies and develops education and outreach opportunities regarding guardianships, conservatorships, and their alternatives;
  • provides training and support to those engaging the guardianship/conservatorship system;
  • identifies resources that may be available in emergency cases where persons of limited decision-making capacity have no guardian;
  • promotes high standards for guardians and conservators;
  • promotes collaboration between Utah WINGS members and other stakeholders; and
  • regularly evaluates the needs and priorities of Utah WINGS’s efforts.

Among other things, the WINGS group continually reviews guardianship and conservatorship forms and policies to suggest improvements and provide recommendations to the courts and their committees.

Of critical importance has been the breadth and inclusiveness of WINGS participants. While participation has varied through the years, Utah WINGS currently has 27 stakeholders. The roster of WINGS stakeholders includes representatives from, among others, the following agencies/organizations:

  • Adult Protective Services (APS)—Director
  • Attorney General’s Office Medicaid Fraud Control Unit (MFCU)—Director
  • Office of Public Guardian (OPG)—Director
  • Division of Adult and Aging Services—Director
  • Disability Law Center
  • Utah Legal Services
  • Long-Term Care Ombudsman
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
  • American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)
  • University of Utah School of Medicine
  • Utah Commission on Aging
  • Utah Division of Indian Affairs
  • Utah legislature, through legislators interested in guardianship issues
  • Utah State Bar, through representatives of its Elder Law Section
  • The court system’s Self-Help Center
  • District court judges
  • District court staff (judicial assistants involved with guardianships)
  • Administrative Office of the Courts (providing staffing and support)

The list of improvements to the guardianship process that can be traced back to efforts by the WINGS group is too lengthy for this article but includes at least the following:

  • establishing and obtaining permanent funding for a Guardianship Reporting and Monitoring Program (GRAMP) within the judiciary, which supports WINGS, the Court Visitor Program, and the Guardianship Signature Program;
  • creating reference manuals and bench books, bench cards, and checklists for judges and their staff outlining legal requirements and best practices for guardianship and conservatorship cases;
  • promoting discussion and dissemination of guidelines related to submission of competent medical evidence of incapacity and the importance of person-centered planning and supported decision-making;
  • organizing volunteers for participation in the Court Visitor program and the Guardianship Signature Program;
  • regularly presenting training and information regarding guardianship procedures and regarding alternatives to guardianship;
  • providing outreach to underrepresented groups;
  • continually reviewing and updating forms for use by unrepresented individuals, as made available through the courts’ Self-Help Center and the courts’ website;
  • collaborating with law enforcement agencies to serve victims of abuse, neglect, and exploitation;
  • collaborating with the Veterans Administration and Social Security Administration to involve family caregivers, guardians, and representatives of the Hispanic and LGBTQ communities;
  • developing online training programs on advance life planning and guardianship, and developing similar WINGS classes in Spanish for presentation through the Mexican Consulate in Salt Lake City;
  • providing life planning and guardianship advice to families with children with disabilities on supplemental security income, with support from an Advanced Support for Innovative Research Excellence grant;
  • facilitating record-sharing processes for the benefit of vulnerable adults, including coordinating services and records of Adult Protective Services, the Office of Public Guardian, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Court Visitor Program; and
  • promoting the improvement of court monitoring of guardianships by developing specific forms for judicial review of guardianship and conservatorship reports.

As demonstrated above, a strong WINGS group, supported by the court system, can have a tremendously beneficial impact on guardianship procedures in any given state.

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    By Hon. David M. Connors

    Hon. David M. Connors is a district court judge of the Utah Second District Court in Farmington, Utah.