Bioethics Blogs

He’s NOT a Ward of the State: Legal Significance of Words in Clinical Setting

As a lawyer by training and working as a non-lawyer in a clinical setting, I hear legal words of art tossed around without knowledge of their meaning.  In many cases, wrong terminology is the least of the healthcare team’s concerns and it is not an issue.  However, there are times when correct understanding of the legal significance of a phrase resolves an ethical dilemma all on its own.  

The phrase I have been hearing lately in the clinical setting is “ward of the state.”  This phrase has significance for the health care team because it determines who has authority to make decisions for a patient who lacks capacity, such as patients with development disabilities (“DD”). The legal meaning of “ward of the state” means that the patient has a public legal guardian (as opposed to a family member or friend as guardian). For those who do not understand its meaning, those using the term are usually referring to someone who is receiving health care services from a state agency or living in a group home.  The key misunderstanding is that receiving state services does not automatically deem one a “ward of the state” in the eyes of the law. A patient could be receiving services from Office for People with Developmental Disabilities without having a legal guardian. According to the New York Health Care Decisions Act, a 17-A guardian is the one who makes decisions for anyone with an intellectual or developmental disability, including health care decisions.  This is a legal process. It is common for a facility with patients with disabilities to begin a guardianship process for their residents who lack capacity as part of their admission process, but this is not always the case.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.