Ward of the state is not an actual legal term with a precise definition in Georgia. Generally speaking, it means someone for whom an employee of the State of Georgia is serving as guardian rather than a friend or family member. While not ideal, it’s not as scary as it sounds. However, the process of having a state employee appointed as guardian is more complicated and time consuming than most people realize. It’s not as simple as just making a phone call and the State of Georgia assumes legal responsibility for someone.
Guardianship & Conservatorship in Georgia
Guardianship is the process whereby a probate court appoints an individual as the formal legal decision maker for another person. Conservatorship refers to the same process generally but a conservator makes decisions regarding a person’s money and property whereas a guardian makes decisions about their health and well-being. It is important to remember that having a guardian or conservator appointed removes a person’s right to make decisions for themselves. For this reason, there are procedural safeguards in place to make sure that person is no longer competent to make their own decisions. The process starts by filing a petition with the probate court where the person who needs a guardian lives or is found. The process takes 8-10 weeks and includes a cognitive evaluation, an attorney appointed for the person, and a hearing.
Georgia Division of Aging Services
In Georgia, these guardianship cases are handled by the Division of Aging Services (DAS). As of August, 2019 there were 35 caseworkers serving as guardian for over 900 individuals. In order to have one of these caseworkers appointed as guardian, someone must file the Petition and seek the appointment. DAS will not file the Petition. Ultimately, the final decision of whether guardianship is appropriate and who should serve is up to the probate judge. If there is no one else appropriate or willing to serve, the court will appoint a case manager from DAS. If a report is made and there are allegations of abuse, Adult Protective Services can the Petition and seek DAS appointment.
If a conservator is required, and there is no one else appropriate or willing to serve, the probate judge will appoint a county administrator to handle the money and property. In each county, the probate court will select one or more trusted local attorney to serve as county administrator(s). Where appointed, these county administrators are entitled to a small fee or commission based on the size of the estate.