The death of an incapacitated ward does not immediately end a guardianship or a guardianship proceeding. Texas law requires the settlement of a guardianship after a ward’s death, which may involve resolving pending reimbursement claims, fee requests, accountings, and other unfinished business.
The In re Semrad, No. 01-21-00491-CV (Tex. App.–Houston [1st. Dist.] 2023) case provides clarity on a probate court’s continuing jurisdiction after a ward dies.
Facts & Procedural History
This case involves competing guardianship applications for an elderly mother. More specifically, this case involves a dispute over guardianship after the death of the ward.
When her husband passed away, the mother’s daughters, Staci and Tavi, agreed Staci would be appointed as their mother’s guardian, with Staci acting as guardian of her mother’s person and making all healthcare and living decisions. The sisters agreed that Tavi was to be appointed as guardian of her mother’s estate.
Then questions arose about the mother’s care. The court appointed a temporary guardian ad litem and then the mother died.
The temporary guardian and Tavi moved to close the guardianship. The court did so without addressing the then pending reimbursement and attorney fee requests filed by Staci. Staci appealed the probate court’s refusal to reconsider its order closing the guardianship.
In the case of In re Semrad, the court was asked to determine whether a guardianship should continue after the ward’s death to allow the court to finish up all of the pending matters in the case. The court had to consider the interpretation of the Texas Estates Code and the Texas Probate Code in relation to guardianship after death.
About Guardianships in Texas
To understand the issues involved in closing a guardianship, we first have to pause to consider what a guardianship is.
Guardianship is a legal arrangement where a person is appointed to make decisions on behalf of someone who is unable to make decisions for themselves.
The term “guardianship” describes the legal process whereby one person or entity is appointed by the court to manage the affairs of an incapacitated person, known as the ward.
In Texas, a person can be appointed as the guardian of a person, a guardian of a person’s estate, or both. Guardians of the person make healthcare, living, and other personal decisions. On the other hand, guardians of the estate handle financial matters and property.
Guardian’s Defined Responsibilities
Duty of Care
The guardian’s primary responsibility is to maintain the physical and mental wellbeing of the ward. The guardian is expected to provide for the ward’s needs, ensure their safety, and make crucial decisions related to their healthcare, therapy, and overall quality of life. From deciding on the right living arrangements to choosing the best healthcare services, every step should reflect a high level of empathy and care for the ward.
The guardian also has to manage the ward’s estate and financial affairs. This includes, but is not limited to, handling their income, savings, investments, properties, and expenditures. The guardian needs to employ sound financial judgment, ensuring the ward’s resources are used efficiently and effectively. Importantly, any financial decision made should prioritize the ward’s best interests over any personal gain for the guardian or others.
Guardians are also required to interact with and report to the court. The guardian needs to be prepared to provide an inventory of the ward’s estate, an annual account of what’s been earned and spent, and a status report regarding the ward’s well-being. These court interactions reinforce transparency and allow the court to ensure that the guardian’s decisions are informed and in the ward’s best interests.
Qualifications to be a Guardian
Since this case involved competing applications, we also have to pause to consider who is qualified to be a guardian in Texas.
Not everyone is qualified to be appointed as a guardian. The probate courts generally give preference to the following persons when deciding who can serve as the guardian:
- the spouse of the incapacitated person,
- the nearest of kin, considering the minor’s best interests, or
- an eligible person who is best qualified to serve.
If the ward is a minor and is at least 12, the minor may select a guardian in writing, subject to the court’s finding that it is in the best interest of the minor.
Given the circumstances in this case, both of the daughters were potentially qualified to be the guardian in this case. Thus, the court could not dispose of the case by concluding that either of the daughters was per se disqualified.
Guardianships After the Death of the Ward
According to the Texas Estates Code, when a ward under guardianship passes away, the guardianship technically ends and must be settled and closed by the court. However, this isn’t the full story.
Interestingly, even after the ward’s death, the court’s jurisdiction continues. This is to ensure any unfinished business related to the ward can be properly addressed and concluded.
But it’s key to note that, even though the guardianship continues, the court’s jurisdiction has its limits. Once the ward has passed, all matters concerning the ward’s person inherently become moot, or pointless. This just leaves open questions about the ward’s estate, such as the pending fees at issue in this case.
This case shows that the guardianship does not conclude with the ward’s death but ends when all remaining tasks and responsibilities associated with the ward’s estate have been fully addressed.
Although the court retains limited jurisdiction, a ward’s death moots core issues about their care. Outstanding reimbursement requests, accountings, and property matters must still be conclusively resolved before final discharge. Personal representatives may need court approval to access assets to satisfy claims.
The court’s decision in this case could have implications for the termination of guardianships upon the death of the ward in Texas. Only after all lingering business is addressed should the guardianship be closed and remaining guardians discharged.
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