Last week I introduced you to Debra, her husband Jason, and Jason’s mother, Millie. Millie is not competent to manage her affairs and she does not have a Power of Attorney. Jason has the password for her bank account and has been paying the bills she used to pay online, even though he has no legal authority to do so. The solution: Jason needs to file a petition for guardianship in the court where his mother lives. As guardian he will have legal authority to pay bills and make decisions on his mother’s behalf.

Petitioning for guardianship or conservatorship is fairly straightforward:  You send a written petition — with specific legal language — to the clerk of the court and pay a filing fee. That starts the ball rolling. The bad news is that guardianship laws vary from one state to another, and so you should avoid one-size-fits-all forms off the Internet.

Instead, hire a lawyer. Be prepared to provide evidence that your loved one is incompetent, including a letter or testimony from her physician. There will be a court hearing and it’s possible the court will ask your loved one to appear and testify. If other family members oppose your guardianship petition, they may file their own petitions. Even if you’re the only person who asks to be appointed guardian, the entire process will take months. That’s why, in the situation I described, Jason needs to file his petition ASAP.