A ward of the state is a person under the government’s protection.
Children and adults with cognitive disabilities can become wards of the state when they lack a competent parent or trusted person to look out for them and, because of young age or incapacity, cannot care for themselves. Although the term applies to children and adults receiving state support and oversight, the state’s function differs.
Children Under State Protection
Courts deem children state wards when they lack a capable parent or guardian to provide supervision. Minors need protection because of their age. They require a parent or guardian to ensure they have housing, food, clothing, and education. When there is no competent person to do this, the state steps in, often for a limited period until the child obtains a guardian, returns to their parents, or becomes an adult.
Wards of the state in the foster care system are under the state’s shelter. In some cases, their parents may have passed away. Other times, their parents abused, neglected, or abandoned them.
While they reside with foster families or group homes, a government agency such as the Department of Child and Family Services, oversees their well-being. The state decides where they live and ensures they receive access to education and health care.
Ward of the State Meaning for Adults
Adults need guardians when they cannot manage their affairs because a disease, condition, accident, disability, or advanced age has incapacitated them. As they cannot care for themselves, these adults need someone to take responsibility for them.
When vulnerable adults lack a family member or friend to step in as their guardian and manage their personal or financial affairs, the state may intervene to fulfill this role.
Public Guardianship of Adults
Guardianship of adults falls under state laws. Depending on the state, a public guardian may support older adults. In Illinois, the Office of the State Guardian serves 5,300 people who have developmentally disabilities or mental illness, or are of advanced age. The agency provides oversight of personal, financial, and legal matters, helping those who lack the means to pay a private individual or organization for guardianship services.
Public guardians manage a person’s personal affairs, financial affairs, or both. For instance, in California, the superior court may appoint a public guardian as the conservator of the person, estate, or both. A conservator of the person handles life decisions, whereas a conservator of the estate manages financial affairs.
How Long Can Someone Be a Ward of the State?
While children in foster care are typically wards of the state for limited durations, older adults can remain under state guardianship for extended periods.
Adults with lifelong conditions that make them unable to make personal or financial decisions may remain state wards for the span of their lives. In other cases, they may regain independence, or a private individual assumes the role of guardian.
Sometimes, young people with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the foster care system need a guardian upon aging out of care. When no responsible family member or trusted person can take on the role, a former foster child with a disability may continue to be a ward of the state into adulthood. A state guardian can decide where the individual lives and what kind of care they receive, and may manage their finances.
Guardian Ad Litem
Older people can also become wards of the state while guardianship actions are pending. Typically, the state extends protection for a limited time before the court appoints an individual as guardian.
For instance, while family members are litigating who should be the guardian, the court may place the person with a disability under its protection and assign a guardian ad litem. The guardian ad litem looks out for the ward’s best interests and reports back to the court.
If the court decides to appoint an individual as a guardian, the protected person is no longer a ward of the state. The ward now has a private guardian to provide assistance and does not need state oversight.
To learn more about how being a ward of the state affects you or your loved one’s rights, speak to your attorney.