While even the simplest guardianship is an expensive, lengthy, and public undertaking, a contested guardianship can be much worse. A contested guardianship is a case in which there are multiple interested persons (usually family members) with different ideas of what is best for the incapacitated person (the “ward”). As you might imagine, contests like this can drive up the financial and emotional cost of the proceeding, delay results, and air a family’s “dirty laundry” in open court.
A recent celebrity example of a contested guardianship is Fredric von Anhalt’s guardianship (called a “conservatorship” in California) over his wife Zsa Zsa Gabor. Gabor’s daughter asked the court to appoint her as her mother’s guardian instead, accusing her stepfather of sedating and isolating her mother and mishandling her finances. All of this and more has been discussed in court, and is memorialized in the public records and gossip columns. Von Anhalt, who appears to have generally taken good care of his wife, has had to justify all his actions and pay for his defense.
As in the Gabor case, the point most often in dispute in a contested guardianship is who is best suited to take care of the ward as his or her guardian. This issue is usually resolved by the court at the time it determines that the ward needs a guardian. However, a serious debate between family members over who should serve as guardian can extend a hearing that should take fifteen minutes into a trial that spans over several days. Additionally, challenges can continue throughout the guardianship, like they have in the Gabor case.
The good news is that everyone, rich and famous or otherwise, can avoid guardianship altogether with proper planning. A comprehensive estate plan may include documents such as a revocable living trust, a designation of health care surrogate, and a power of attorney that can serve as an alternative to guardianship, when well-drafted. The plan also may include a designation of pre-need guardian, which allows you to name the loved one(s) you would want to be your guardian, if a court should ever decide you need one.