Australia’s society is aging as medical science and improvements in diet and lifestyle allow Australian to live longer than they ever did before. But this development comes with a range of challenges – to government budgets, policy-making and aged care – to name a few.
At a more personal level, more people are living to an age where their mental capacity diminishes to the point where they can no longer make informed decisions about their personal, financial, or health matters. This is an important reality to acknowledge in areas such as estate planning and the topic addressed in this article, making an enduring power of attorney (EPOA) or guardianship appointment, with a focus on how solicitors and medical professionals determine mental capacity and the role of the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT).
Understanding and determining mental capacity
Mental capacity refers to an individual’s ability to make decisions and understand the consequences of those decisions. When a person’s mental capacity declines due to factors such as aging, illness, or cognitive impairment, they may no longer be able to manage their affairs effectively.
In cases of suspected loss of mental capacity, medical professionals play a crucial role in assessing an individual’s cognitive abilities. This assessment typically involves a thorough evaluation of the person’s mental and physical health, including cognitive testing and psychological assessments. A medical diagnosis and evaluation is valuable and essential evidence in determining whether an individual still has capacity to make decisions.
Solicitors, too, are often involved in the process of determining mental capacity, especially when it pertains to legal matters like creating an EPOA or guardianship appointment. While no-one expects a solicitor to have expertise in assessing a client’s mental capacity, they can make a ‘legal’ assessment of the person’s capacity through their dealings with the individual to evaluate their understanding of the legal documents and the implications of their decisions.
The Law Society of NSW recommends solicitors can:
- Make a preliminary assessment of mental capacity – looking for warning signs or ‘red flags’ using basic questioning and observation of the client.
- If doubts arise, seeking a clinical consultation or formal evaluation of the client’s mental capacity by a clinician with expertise in cognitive capacity assessment.
- Making a final legal judgment about mental capacity for the particular decision or transaction.
Role of mental capacity in creating an EPOA and guardianship appointment
An EPOA is a legal document that allows an individual (the principal) to appoint someone (the attorney) to manage their financial and legal affairs when they are unable to do so themselves. It is crucial that the principal has the requisite mental capacity when creating this important document to avoid potential later legal repercussions.
A guardianship appointment differs from an EPOA in that it relates to designating a ‘guardian’ who can make decisions regarding an individual’s health and lifestyle when they no longer have capacity to do so. Choices about care accommodation, healthcare, medical procedures and other personal matters become the responsibility of the appointed guardian.
Role and process of NCAT in EPOA and guardianship matters
When an individual loses mental capacity and has not previously established an EPOA or guardianship, it can create a challenging situation for family members and caregivers who may disagree about the best way to protect the person’s wellbeing and interests. In such cases, NCAT can step in to address the person’s needs and make decisions on their behalf.
NCAT is a legal authority in NSW that specializes in resolving disputes and making decisions related to guardianship, financial management, and other civil and administrative matters. When mental capacity is lacking, and no prior legal arrangements exist, a family member, friend, or concerned party may apply to NCAT for orders regarding the appointment of a guardian or financial manager for the person who has lost capacity.
NCAT will carefully consider all relevant evidence, including medical assessments and input from family members and healthcare providers, to determine the person’s best interests. If necessary, NCAT may appoint a guardian to make decisions related to the person’s healthcare, accommodation, and lifestyle. Additionally, a financial manager may be appointed to handle their financial affairs. NCAT may also review an existing EPOA or guardianship appointment.
NCAT also has the power to regularly review its decisions to ensure that the appointed guardian or financial manager continues to act in the person’s best interests.
Talk to our expert team
The loss of mental capacity is a challenging and sensitive issue for both the individual and their family, with significant legal and personal implications. It’s crucial to consult with legal professionals with experience in elder law and estate planning where an individual with diminished capacity needs to make an EPOA or guardianship appointment, or an application to NCAT is required.
The process of engaging medical professionals to assess capacity, or navigating the requirements of an NCAT application, can be stressful and time-consuming. Contact our friendly and approachable team today if any of the information in this article raises questions or concerns.