Supported Decision-Making

Printable Bulletin

Note: The following information is intended to give an overview of
alternatives to guardianship in Washington State. It is
for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for legal advice.
For advice on making legal decisions, please seek the assistance of an

Many parents of children with intellectual or other developmental disabilities assume that they will need to obtain legal guardianship when their child turns 18; however, while there are some cases where obtaining legal guardianship is warranted, it is often not necessary. Not only that, but Washington state’s guardianship law requires considering alternatives to guardianship first.

Begin thinking about supported decision-making options by making a list of your concerns. Is money management an issue? Self-care? Health risks? Exploitation? Write down all of the areas that pose a risk to your son or daughter’s health and safety, and consider one or more of the following options as a way to address those concerns:

Representative Payee

A representative payee is an individual or organization appointed by a government agency (such as SSA) to receive government benefits on behalf of an individual who cannot manage his/her money.

When friends or family are not able to serve as payees, Social Security looks for qualified organizations to be representative payees.

The payee’s responsibility is to use the benefits to pay for the current and foreseeable needs of the beneficiary and properly save any benefits not currently needed.

If you believe that your son or daughter is incapable of managing or directing the management of his or her Social Security or SSI benefits, call 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778) to request an appointment to discuss your concerns. 

Special Needs Trust (Financial)

Special needs trusts, such as the Developmental Disabilities Endowment Trust Fund, provide oversight and management of money held in the trust.

A special needs trust ensures that the individual’s resources are spent for the benefit of the individual.

Power of Attorney (Financial and Medical)

A power of attorney authorizes an individual to designate others to advocate on his/her behalf, including making medical and/or financial decisions.

Unlike a guardianship (authority from the court) or a payeeship (authority from the funding source), a power of attorney is given authority by the individual.

An individual can sign a valid power of attorney document if s/he has the capacity to understand what the document says.

Informed Consent (Medical)

To give informed consent for medical treatment, a person must have the mental capacity to understand the choices and make the decision.

If a person cannot make health care decisions by reason of mental incapacity, Washington law provides a way for someone else to make health care decisions on his or her behalf.

As with all other decisions, it’s important to always strive to give the individual the most decision-making authority possible; and, when not possible, to make decisions that the individual would choose for him or herself.

The following persons can provide informed consent on behalf of the individual in the following order:

  • The guardian or parent if the person is under age 18;
  • An individual to whom the person has given a durable power of attorney, including the authority to decide health care issues;
  • Spouse;
  • Adult children (over age 18);
  • Parents;
  • Adult brothers and sisters.

Vulnerable Adult Protection Order (Protection)

A Vulnerable Adult Protection Order (VAPO) can protect an adult with a mental or physical disability who is victimized by abandonment, abuse or financial exploitation. You can obtain a VAPO from the court even when the individual is unable or unwilling to seek help.

An example of when a Vulnerable Adult Protection Order may be a good alternative to guardianship is if an interloper “moves in” with a person with a disability and starts taking their food and money. In a case like that, a VAPO may provide quick access to orders protecting him/her from further abuse or exploitation, even if the individual is unwilling to seek help. Adult Protective Services also may assist.

Mandatory forms to use for these cases are on the court website.


Disability Rights Washington

Washington LawHelp

Washington Courts Guardianship Training


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