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Washington’s Public Guardianship Program

Posted Friday, March 7, 2014 by John S. Palmer

The Office of Public Guardianship (OPG) was established in 2007 to provide legal guardians for incapacitated persons who have no one willing or able to serve as guardian and cannot otherwise afford a professional guardian.

An individual who has been adjudicated to be incapacitated by the superior court is eligible for a public guardian if he or she is 18 years of age or older and has no friend or family member who is qualified and willing to serve. The incapacitated person’s income cannot exceed 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($23,340 for 2014) or they must be receiving long-term care services through the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.

The program is intended to alleviate the bind created when an incapacitated person needs a guardian, but one cannot be found. Before the program was implemented the only viable option was to cajole a friend or family member to volunteer, or a professional guardian to take the case pro bono.

However, due to budget constraints, the program still only operates in 10 out of Washington’s 39 counties (including King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties) and gives first priority to individuals who are homeless, at significant risk of harm from abuse, exploitation, abandonment, neglect, or self-neglect, or are in imminent danger of losing public services needed to live in the least restrictive environment possible.

OPG contracts with various professional guardians to serve as public guardians in the counties where the program operates. If a case is accepted by OPG, it is referred to one of these contracted public guardians. OPG has adopted standards and guidelines for the program; for example, each contracted public guardian cannot have a caseload of more than twenty clients except in temporary, extraordinary circumstances, and all cases (both public and private-pay) count toward this caseload restriction.

Additionally, each public guardian must have an advisory panel in place to assure that the medical, mental, nutritional, functional, environmental and financial needs each ward are continuously addressed in an appropriate manner, and is the least restrictive alternative available. Each public guardian is required to submit detailed monthly billing records to OPG, and must accept payment from the OPG as payment in full for all public guardian services rendered.

In December 2011 the Washington State Institute for Public Policy completed a cost-benefit analysis of the program; it notes that between 2008 and mid-2011, OPG accepted 87 cases, of which 29 were in King County, 24 in Pierce County, and 21 were in Spokane County, with the remaining 13 cases spread among Clallam, Okanogan, Snohomish and Grays Harbor Counties.

The study found that in the first 6 months, an incapacitated person’s monthly expenses typically increase, usually because he or she is homeless or experiencing an acute health crisis at the time a guardian is assigned to the case. However, within 30 months, the average monthly residential cost for an OPG client is reduced by almost 50%, from $2,400 per month to $1,300 per month; and the total savings in housing costs exceeds the cost of providing a public guardian. The study suggests that this is because over time, as OPG clients receive consistent care and assistance, they are able to move to a lower (and less costly) level of care.

The study also estimates that between 4,000 and 5,000 adults in Washington State may require a guardian, but lack the resources to pay for one; which begs the question: if the program can save public funds over the long term, why is it not expanded? According to Disability Rights Washington, the answer lies in how the program is funded:

Unfortunately, the savings brought by the OPG are in social service and medical assistance budgets – not in the budget of the courts. Since the OPG is administered through the courts (Administrative Office of Courts), they see no benefit to their budget and so its preservation is not a priority for courts.

The state legislature is currently in the process of formulating the next state budget. The senate’s budget bill (ESSB 6002) and companion house bill (HB 2185) both allocate $274,000 per year for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 for OPG “to continue guardianship services for those low-income incapacitated persons who were receiving services on June 30, 2013.” The senate bill also includes an additional $200,000 for 2015 which is not earmarked for existing clients.

Anyone wishing to voice support for increased funding for OPG should contact their individual legislators, Governor Jay Inslee, and members of the legislative budget committees: the House Appropriations Committee and Senate Ways and Means Committee

If you have any questions or would like to schedule an appointment, please call us at (425) 455-5513, toll free at (877) 455-5513, or

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Law Office of John S. Palmer11911 NE 1st St, Ste. B204,Bellevue, WA 98005-3056