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Spotlight on pro bono: Visit an elder during the holidays

By Susan L. DeCostanza | Director, Guardian ad litem for Adults Program

You may not have realized that you can visit an elder in your community and log pro bono hours at the same time, but you can. And the need for both is great! In Cook County, when a petition for guardianship of an adult is filed, the court will appoint a Guardian ad litem to complete an investigation in all cases in which the Respondent will not appear in court. The Guardian ad litem visits the Respondent at his or her residence, interviews the Respondent and ultimately reports back to the court regarding the results of the GAL investigation.

A family member or friend might ask the court to appoint a guardian for their loved one for any number of reasons – many of them age-related, such as dementia or stroke (the risk of stroke approximately doubles for every decade of life after the age of 55 according to the American Heart Association). When a petition for guardianship is filed, the loved one has a right to come to court and speak directly with the judge, but some individuals can’t physically make it to court and others choose not to attend. In these cases, the role of the GAL is invaluable. The GAL is charged with visiting the Respondent, informing the Respondent of the guardianship proceedings and their rights in relation to those proceedings. The GAL must do their best to determine if the Respondent objects to the guardianship or has particular wishes in regard to who should serve as their guardian.

When her GAL visited her at the nursing home, Ms. Serena told the story of moving from Mississippi to Chicago as a little girl. Ms. Serena told the GAL that after she grew up, she raised her own five children as well as three of her sister’s children when her sister passed away. Mr. Miller told his GAL that his firm desire was for his two adult daughters to work together. In adult guardianship cases, GALs frequently have the honor of receiving a small part of an individual’s life story and relaying that story back to the court with the dignity that it deserves. 

In cases where the Respondent has income or assets, the GAL appointed by the court is a lawyer who can charge fees for their time. However, for thousands of seniors on a fixed budget in Illinois, there are no available funds to pay an attorney for this valuable service. In those cases, the Cook County Probate Court frequently appoints Chicago Volunteer Legal Services (CVLS) to act as Guardian ad litem for the Respondents. CVLS has two staff attorneys that work on Adult GAL matters, and accepts hundreds of court appointments each year. There is no way that two attorneys could cover all of those cases and so, CVLS relies on volunteer attorneys (like you!) who take time out of their day and regular practice to visit someone’s beloved father or aunt, ensure that their rights are protected and tell a small part of their story to the judge, assisting the court in making a personal and complex decision regarding the individual’s life.

CVLS provides training and an abundance of support for attorneys that decide to volunteer their pro bono hours in the CVLS Adult GAL Program. Whether you have professional experience in probate proceedings or personal experience caring for a family member, CVLS can provide the tools needed to successfully complete a GAL for Adults case. Petitioners in CVLS cases generally represent themselves in their guardianship court cases. Not only do CVLS Guardians ad litem represent the best interest of the Respondents adult guardianship cases, but GALs benefit the courts and the family members by explaining procedural steps and telling family members what they can expect in court, which can relieve a considerable amount of stress for pro se litigants.   

Volunteering as a CVLS Guardian ad litem provides an important service to Illinois individuals and families and courts. Visit an elder this holiday season. Encourage a lawyer friend to commit to a GAL case as a new year’s resolution. Take advantage of the momentum of this season of giving and give of one of your most precious resources – your time – to someone who needs it!

CONTACT: Director, Guardian ad litem for Adults Program at CVLS, Susan L. DeCostanza, sdecostanza@cvls.org or 312-332-7546.

Susan L. DeCostanza is a member of the ISBA’s Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services. The mission of the Standing Committee on Delivery of Legal Services is to study, recommend, promote and conduct ISBA activities pertaining to mechanisms for the delivery of legal services to the public, including, but not limited to, legal assistance to the indigent and other methods of simplifying or lessening the costs of delivery systems. Susan is the Director, Guardian ad Litem for Adults Program at Chicago Volunteer Legal Services.

Posted on December 13, 2016 by Morgan Yingst
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