By Alexis Levitt, Esq.

Once we turn 18, no one can legally speak for us anymore. After 18, what happens when we are in a situation where we cannot make our own decisions? For example, temporarily, perhaps if we are under anesthesia. Or perhaps permanently, having developed dementia?
If a person never signed a health care proxy or a durable power of attorney, the answer is guardianship (healthcare) and conservatorship (finances).
If you’ve been told that you need to bring a guardianship or conservatorship, maybe by a doctor’s office, or bank, or nursing home, the very first thing you should do is hunt high and low to make sure your loved one really never signed a health care proxy or durable power of attorney. If you find those, consider yourself extremely lucky.
If you can’t find a signed health care proxy or durable power of attorney, then it’s off to court to endure a lengthy, costly, and emotionally draining process. If you have a very strong stomach, it’s possible to do a guardianship on your own. Be sure to take advantage of the courthouse’s volunteer “lawyer of the day.” Conservatorship is much trickier, and even for those with fortitude, you should not proceed without a lawyer.
Each process involves filling out several forms and knowing how to answer (and not to answer) the various questions. You may have to arrange to publish an announcement in the newspaper, and you will need to have a third party hand deliver certain documents to your loved one (a friend, a neighbor, just someone not immediately involved).
If your loved one is on antipsychotic medications, there are many extra hoops to jump through (called Rogers guardianship), adding weeks to months to the process.
If you need to bring a guardianship or conservatorship, proceed carefully, and brace yourself for a long process. A capable attorney will handle most of the work for you, relieving as much of the burden as possible.