Who Has Legal Standing to File A Guardianship Case in New Jersey?

By Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. of Hanlon Niemann & Wright, a Freehold, NJ Elder Care & Guardianship Attorney

Who can legally initiate a guardianship case based on alleged mental incompetency such as in Alzheimer’s disease?  Well, in most cases the answer is clear – family members and the court, among other select individuals.  But who are these “select individuals” and when can they bring an incompetency action in hopes of becoming the alleged mentally incompetent individual’s guardian?

In a well cited NJ case Matter of Tierney, Jane Tierney was 55 years old and an only child. Her parents were dead, she had no living aunts or uncles, and her six distant cousins had little to no contact with her.  She was injured in an automobile accident and received a judgment of $400,000.  The plaintiff, Marie Sayer, brought the incompetency action in hopes of becoming Tierney’s guardian.  The question in this case, was not whether Jane Tierney was incompetent (she was), but whether Marie Sayer – a childhood friend – could bring a guardianship action in the first place, and if so, be appointed as guardian.

The court’s statement of facts is summarized below:

Marie Sayer had assisted Tierney over the years with personal and financial affairs.  Tierney executed a power of attorney to Sayer and her husband. Sayer also had control over Tierney’s stock certificates, assets, and bank books.  Ms. Sayer was not related to Tierney nor was she financially or legally obligated to plaintiff. Sayer was, however, the principal beneficiary of Tierney’s last will and testament.  However, two years after Sayer was named power of attorney, Tierney became concerned about the management of her legal and financial affairs.  Subsequently, she gave her current counsel the power of attorney.  In response, Sayer brought the incompetency and guardianship action.

Ultimately, the court ruled that Sayer was a mere stranger – and that only relatives who are “interested” in the welfare of the mentally incompetent individual may bring an incompetency action.  The public policy reasoning the court relies upon is key, “This rule is in place to clearly protect individuals from unwanted interference in their affairs and to shield individuals from defending themselves from ridiculous incompetency charges.”  Note how in the facts cited above – the court never commented once on Tierney’s alleged incompetency – that’s because there was little evidence of this!  Accordingly, the court did not take issue with this dimension of the case – rather, it took issue with what interest Sayer apparently had in Tierney’s affairs.  Often, friends of an elderly individual who have little to no living family will attempt to lay claim to this person’s assets through frivolous incompetency actions.  In this case, the court ruled that Sayer was a mere stranger and she had no legal or equitable interests in the Tierney’s affairs.  She was not a relative, next of kin, of a spouse.

To discuss your NJ Guardianship & Elder Care matter, please contact Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. toll-free at (855) 376-5291 or email him at fniemann@hnlawfirm.com.  Please ask us about our video conferencing consultations if you are unable to come to our office.