A time to step in: legal mechanisms for protecting those with declining capacity

Am J Law Med. 2013;39(1):134-59. doi: 10.1177/009885881303900103.


Current estimates approximate that the population over sixty-five years of age will increase from 40 million in 2010 to 72.1 million by 2030. As society ages, the number of elderly with cognitive deficits that impair decision-making abilities will also increase. This will place additional burdens on families and probate courts seeking to balance individual autonomy with necessary protections. A legal determination of incompetency is a prerequisite to a judicial order appointing a guardianship or other protective mechanism. The current legal-medical model for competency determinations fails to reflect the complexities of declining capacity in an aging population. A global structure for competency determinations leaves a critical gap between competent and incompetent. The gap between competence and incompetence not only raises concerns about how to classify those that fall between the two, but also highlights the lack of legal protections for those within the gap. A revised model is needed to provide protections to individuals who do not yet meet the threshold for incompetence but require additional protections for their personal or financial welfare. This Article provides an unprecedented examination of the legal model for determining competence through a comparison of the medical model for evaluating capacity. While a number of legal scholars have examined the appointment and oversight of guardians, fewer articles have critically examined the process by which individuals are declared incompetent. This Article presents a comprehensive overview of competency and clinical capacity determination procedures, legal mechanisms available to protect individuals with declining capacity, and policy recommendations for improving legal protections in light of inefficiencies related to legal competency determinations.

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making*
  • Dementia / psychology
  • Humans
  • Legal Guardians / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Mental Competency / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • United States