The Dangers of Do-It-Yourself Guardian Advocacy

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Written by Gerald L. Hemness, Jr, Esq.

Reviewed by Kevin Staas, Esq.

Having renovated our own home in the Tampa area over a period of 10 years, I can attest that home improvements shown on TV always look easier and less complicated at the beginning of the project. Unfortunately, it seems repairs I’ve made end up below par or I find myself needing the help of a professional contractor to correct the problems I simply did not anticipate. Sadly, the savings I thought I’d get to enjoy did not materialize. And, I admit I would have been better off – in time and money – to have had the contractor handle it from the beginning.

For parents of a child with autism or another developmental disability who’s approaching the age of 18, there are significant legal changes that occur. Your 18 year old child is an adult and you no longer have the right to make decisions for him or her, including medical, financial or social decisions. These legal complications can be addressed with a simplified guardianship process in Florida known as “guardian advocacy”. A do-it-yourself approach may seem attractive, yet there is a lot at risk; and navigating the laws and the Courthouse in downtown Tampa is daunting for someone who has little to no experience with the legal system. So, you need to understand the pros and cons of hiring an experienced lawyer or doing it yourself.

Watching YouTube or googling forms may give you a feeling that it’s simple enough as a parent whose child has special needs to obtain “guardianship”, even lawyers do not understand the difference between representative payee status, health care surrogate, Florida’s medical proxy statute, power of attorney, Guardian advocacy and an incapacity guardianship under chapter 744. For instance, what you can do for your special needs child under a power of attorney is restricted as compared to the authority and responsibility under guardian advocacy or involuntary guardianship. Helping protect your child with autism from bad actors is available under one legal option yet not available under the other. Given what is at stake, the reliance upon an experienced special needs lawyer becomes your peace of mind within this legal maze.

The challenges of being a do-it-yourself parent with a child with autism have to be carefully understood when undertaking those legal tasks drawing you into the courtroom. Similar to not knowing whether you need the circular saw or a hacksaw, preparing legal paperwork is daunting for the inexperienced parent. Pleadings must be captioned appropriately. The proof of certain facts about you and your developmentally disabled child is required by the Court for it to grant relief. Strict deadlines for filing paperwork have to be understood and followed. All persons with a particular legal status (biological parent, next of kin) to your child must be noticed of your action or the Court cannot allow you to be appointed guardian. To avoid these obstacles, the solution is hiring an experienced special needs lawyer who has handled many, many guardianships like this in the ordinary course of legal advocacy.

Fortunately the expense of hiring “a professional” to assist you with your legal needs can be affordable. The Tampa Court’s fees for a guardianship may be waived for an individual with a developmental disability who has limited funds. And, not all attorneys charge thousands and thousands of dollars for such cases.  While your selection of a doctor might be limited by what insurance you have, your selection of an attorney is only limited by the time you’re willing to spend researching the full extent of their qualifications and calling those who advertise they provide guardianship services. Where we hear some lawyers charge several thousand dollars, our current fee for an uncontested guardian advocacy is $1,500. It could even be less if we schedule Court hearings for several similarly situated parents as yourself. Our firm is also willing to work out a payment plan to accommodate almost any person’s finances.

Addressing the transition of your child with autism to adulthood, and the multitude of legal complications that come along with it, is a scary time and can be overwhelming. Remember it is not always as easy as you see it on TV, or YouTube. Our clients in Tampa and surrounding areas have told us that the peace of mind they receive from our expertise in guardian advocacy far outweighs the expense for our legal services. We’re here to help navigate you, the parent whose child has special needs, through this legal maze