What Is A Ward Of The State And What Does It Involve?

Last Updated on September 1, 2022 by Fair Punishment Team

When looking up legal terminology or reading news articles you may come across the term ward of the state and wonder what it means. 

While there are a lot of legal terms that can be understood from looking at the context clues that surround them, there are some that need a bit more of an explanation or lead to further questions.  Ward of the state is one of those terms. 

What Is A Ward Of The State And What Does It Involve

A ward of the state is essentially someone who is placed under the care of the state through the use of an appointed guardian.  When placed under the care of the state, certain important decisions are placed in the hands of the appointed guardian. 

These can include financial, medical, and other decisions. In this article, we will look in closer detail at what being a ward of the state entails and why it is an important option in some cases. 

What Does It Mean To Be A Ward Of The State?

Being a ward of the state is something that can have a slightly different meaning depending on which state you are in.  In some states it can be used to refer to someone who is incarcerated, however, that is the less common usage of the phrase. 

More commonly, the phrase ward of the state refers to an individual, either adult or child, who has been placed in the care of the state.  It is typically a condition that is imposed on an adult who is disabled or incapacitated in some way. 

Becoming a ward of the state is something that is achieved through a court order and the courts will remain involved for the duration of the order.

How Does A Child Become A Ward Of The State?

Becoming a ward of the state is not something that happens quickly or is done lightly by the courts. 

The process of becoming a ward of the state can be traumatic for a child, therefore, the trauma and danger of remaining in their current situation must outweigh the damage that can be done by implementing the order. 

The most common reasons for being placed under the care of the state include neglect, abuse, or other immediate danger to the child’s wellbeing or safety. 

If the child’s wellbeing or safety is deemed to be at risk, the court will remove them from the custody of their current parent or guardian and place them with an alternative guardian or family member where possible. 

This alternative guardian will retain custody until the situation is resolved or permanent guardianship is successfully applied for and granted. 

The point of making a child a ward of the state is to protect them from further trauma and to try and facilitate the resolution of the issues that lead to the court order. 

How Does An Adult Become A Ward Of The State?

Although it may be more common for a child to become a ward of the state, there is no legislation that places an age limit on who can become a ward of the state. 

Where an adult individual has been deemed to be incapable of making decisions, looking after themselves, or considered incompetent, a court order may be put in place to make them a ward of the state. 

Much like when children are made a ward of the state, the aim is to keep the individual safe.  The leading causes of an adult being made a ward of the state are mental and physical impairments. 

These can be temporary impairments or permanent ones.  A ward of the state order is often implemented when the care required to keep the adult safe and healthy is beyond the means of the family members.  

A ward for an adult is appointed by the courts and the decision is made with the individual’s best needs as the sole focus. 

The ward will be responsible for making financial and medical decisions, therefore, the appointment is taken extremely seriously.  The ward that is appointed is responsible for ensuring that the individual’s rent or mortgage and bills are paid. 

They are also responsible for making sure that the ward’s health and medical needs are taken care of and that they are receiving any applicable benefits from the state. 

How Long Does Someone Remain A Ward Of The State?

In the majority of cases, once an adult becomes a ward of the state it is a permanent arrangement as there are very few reasons why a ward would be removed. 

The main reasons why a ward of the state order may be removed include a marked improvement in the ward’s capacity to care for themselves such as recovering from an injury or illness. 

Another reason why a ward order may be removed is that a family member becomes available to provide the necessary care without the need for a court-appointed guardian and the change is deemed to be in the best interests of the individual. 

In both of these cases, a court hearing is required to ensure that the correct decision is being made and to officially terminate the guardianship order. 

If a child becomes a ward of the state due to neglect or abuse the order will come to a natural end when the child turns eighteen.  At this point, the child is a legal adult and does not require any kind of guardianship. 

In some rare circumstances, a child that has been made a ward of the state may have their guardianship extended beyond eighteen if they are deemed to not have the capacity to care for themselves. 

This would take place during a court hearing and the guardian may be changed to fit with the changing needs of the individual and their best interests. 

Are There Any Benefits To Being A Ward Of The State?

Although making an individual a ward of the state is often the last resort option and may sound like something you wouldn’t want, it can be a good thing with a few benefits to it. 

If a child is made a ward of the state, for example, they are often being removed from an unsafe, abusive environment in which they are not being provided with adequate care at best or are in danger at worst. 

When they become a ward of the state, their physical, emotional, and psychological needs are met and they are safe.

When an adult individual is made a ward of the state having been deemed incapable or incapacitated, they are being placed into the care of a competent adult. 

With this comes benefits such as financial aid and protection to ensure that the individual is not being taken advantage of by any other individual. 

The personal health and well-being of the adult ward are also being taken care of which helps to ensure that their needs are being adequately met and their quality of life is being maintained.

What Is A Ward Of The State And What Does It Involve

Are There Any Disadvantages To Being A Ward?

Although there are many advantages for individuals that become a ward of the state, there are also some disadvantages that may be faced. 

The main disadvantage for both children and adults who are made a ward of the state is being looked after by an unknown person. 

It is important to note that in the case of child wards, guardianship is given to a known and trusted adult where possible, but there are cases where an unknown adult will need to take guardianship.  

Potential guardians are vetted thoroughly, however, as with any overstretched and underfunded public service, the process doesn’t always go as planned and things can fall through the cracks. 

Financial manipulation is a common complaint with guardianships such as ward of the state, however, this is not exclusive to unknown guardians but there is often an added family pressure to do the right thing when the guardian is known to the individual.  

Another disadvantage to being a ward that has been noted in multiple cases is the risk of the individual’s wishes being ignored, general solutions being implemented, and inadequate communication between the guardian and the family or courts which can lead to inappropriate control of relationships with others. 

There are many reasons why these things may occur under a ward of the state order, some of which are more innocent than others. 

Oftentimes, it is simply a case of a well-intentioned guardian being a little too overbearing which can be the result of them being overworked. 

However, there may be more sinister motives such as the guardian being more interested in collecting their check than providing adequate care and services, this can escalate up to an outright financial fraud attempt. 

Variable factors, such as the ward’s level of capacity and the involvement of the family members can make it much more difficult to identify these cases.  

Who Takes Care Of A Ward Of The State?

The court plays a large role in determining who will be charged with taking care of a ward of the state. 

When a case of incompetence or a child that needs to be removed from their home is brought to court, the judge will determine what type of care is required to suit the best needs of the individual. 

In cases of abuse, neglect, or legal issues, a child will always be removed from the home to protect their physical and psychological well-being. 

Wherever possible, the child will be placed with an alternative family member.  If this is not possible, the child will be placed with an unknown guardian such as a foster family.

With an adult, the cases are often a little more complex, capacity can be measured in many different ways and there can be varying levels of need for care. 

There will be some cases where an elderly individual is already living in a care home but has lost the capacity to make medical or financial decisions and needs a guardian to make such decisions. 

However, if the individual has lost capacity through a traumatic brain injury, for example, they may have more complex needs.

In these cases, a family member will be made guardian wherever possible, however, sometimes there will be a need to place the guardianship with a paid state guardian.

What Does A Guardian Do?

When someone is made a guardian for a ward of the state, they become responsible for the medical, financial, living arrangements, and any other major decisions as dictated by the court order. 

In some cases, separate guardians may be appointed for different decisions.  For example, one guardian may be responsible for medical decisions while another is responsible for financial decisions.

Other decisions, such as living arrangements should consider the ward’s input if they have the capacity.  

A guardian is not responsible for the day-to-day care of the individual such as personal care.  Such tasks will be assigned to carers or nurses, but the guardian is responsible for ensuring that necessary care plans are put in place and carried out properly.  

Is The State Financially Responsible For A Ward

In a word, no.  the state holds no financial responsibility for a ward and provides no financial assistance for being a ward of the state. 

If an individual has been made a ward of the state, they are responsible for covering their costs such as rent or mortgage as well as covering the costs of their guardian’s services.  They may, however, be eligible for state assistance such as disability benefits and social security. 

The state’s only responsibility once guardianship has been established is to ensure that they are being overseen properly.

When the ward of the state is a child, they become the financial responsibility of the state unless an appropriate family member is appointed as a guardian in which case, they will assume the financial responsibility.

What Are The Alternatives?

In many cases, becoming a ward of the state is unavoidable because it is based on the capacity and safety of an individual. 

However, there are ways to avoid someone having to become a ward of the state.  The best alternative is to have a family member who can assume the role of a guardian rather than a court-appointed guardian. 

There are many cases in which a family member can take on the role of the guardian but avoids doing so through fear of being financially responsible for the individual. 

With the help of an attorney or social worker, you can work out a suitable arrangement in which everyone understands what their role and responsibilities would be without going through the courts.  

However, planning can be the best way to avoid becoming a ward of the state.  If a diagnosis of the degenerative disease has been made, or even if it hasn’t, it can be a good idea to put medical and financial directives in place before they are necessary. 

This is simply a way of deciding with the individual that you wish to appoint what things they would be responsible for should anything happen to affect your capacity. 

Advanced directives can also be a great way to lay out your wishes in certain potential situations such as being placed on life support.  

These options are not available for children who are at risk of becoming a ward of the state because they are not able to make such decisions for themselves.  

Final Thoughts

Becoming a ward of the state is the last resort option that can be avoided in many cases, however, it should be seen as a positive thing that helps to ensure an individual’s needs are met.