New York Guardianship for an incapacitated person is controlled by Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law (“MHL”). As discussed in previous posts, this statute contains the procedure for the appointment of a guardian as well as the powers that may be given to a personal needs guardian and a property management guardian.
Many of the guardian’s powers are clear and routine. For example, MHL Section 81.21 (Powers of a guardian; property management) provides that a guardian can marshall assets, pay bills that are reasonably necessary for maintenance of the incapacitated person and invest guardianship funds. The guardian’s powers are typically delineated in the Order or Judgment appointing the guardian and can vary from case to case depending upon the particular situation.
Guardianship cases may involve either old or young incapacitated persons. In many instances, a Guardianship is utilized for the benefit of an infant or younger individual who has suffered an injury that results in incapacity and has recovered a substantial sum of money in a lawsuit stemming from the events causing the injury. These events include automobile accidents or medical malpractice.
It is rather common that when an infant or child is injured and receives a large money award due to incapacitating injuries, the child continues to reside at home with his parents. Issues then arise as to what extent, if any, the guardianship funds may be utilized for the infant notwithstanding that a parent has a duty to support a minor child. Another issue that appears is to what extent can expenditures for the incapacitated child also result in a benefit for the child’s parents and other members of his household.
In a recent case entitled Matter of Sigal, decided by Judge Gary F. Knobel of the Nassau County Court on November 12, 2013 and reported in the New York Law Journal on November 22, 2013, the Court was faced with some of these issues. The co-guardians – parents of their incapacitated daughter sought reimbursement from guardianship funds for the costs of a bat mitzvah party and authorization to expend guardianship money for the cost of a vacation for their entire family and an aide. The Court reviewed the many applicable factors including a consideration of the preservation of guardianship funds, the financial ability of the parents to personally pay for these expenses and whether the costs were for necessities, treatment or for education. Based upon these factors and others the Court denied the request for reimbursement of the bat mitzvah party expenses but allowed some funds for the vacation. The Court was concerned that the guardians recognize that the guardianship funds were not for family use but must be preserved for the incapacitated person’s needs throughout her life.
I have represented many petitioners and parents in venues such as Manhattan Guardianship and Brooklyn Guardianship. The Courts routinely inquire as to the proper use of guardianship funds so that the interests of the incapacitated person is protected to the maximum extent possible. While some of these types of cases require the establishment of a Supplemental Needs Trust, the Courts will still require that the trustees exercise their fiduciary powers in accordance with these principals.