Legally Incapacitated vs. Legally Incompetent

By Karyn Maier

By definition, to be incapacitated means to lack the mental or physical capacity to sufficiently care for person and property whether temporarily, intermittently or permanently. The term is often used interchangeably with the word “incompetent,” although the former traditionally describes medical status while the latter is a legal finding. However, most states use the term “legally incapacitated” to describe someone who is unable to meet basic requirements to preserve physical health and safety.

Legally Incapacitated

Persons 18 years of age or older are regarded as legally capable of making decisions that affect personal health, welfare and safety. However, people under the legal age are also considered legally capable if they are married, serving in the military or have been declared an emancipated minor by a court, which means they enjoy the same legal status as an adult. If a judge determines that someone is legally incapacitated, the court has the authority to appoint a guardian or conservator to manage the person’s property and ensure their daily needs are met.

Requirements for Legal Incapacity

Statutory definitions for legal incapacity that may trigger a guardianship proceeding vary by state, but most require evidence of the inability to understand or communicate information necessary to meet essential requirements of physical health, safety or property management. Depending on the jurisdiction, a person may be declared legally incapacitated by a family, district, county, probate or Supreme Court. The specific terms used to describe this legal status also vary by state, ranging from “disabled person” and “interdict” to “incompetent,” although most use the term “incapacitated.”

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Legally Incompetent

Although the term “legally incompetent” is commonly used to describe someone who is physically or mentally incapacitated, use of the word “incompetent” has greater legal designation. When used to refer to the status of someone involved in a legal action, it means the person is unable to participate in the proceeding in a meaningful way. For example, a legally incompetent person who does not understand the charges against him cannot take part in his own defense.

Other Incompetency Issues

Legal incompetency can also refer to a lack of legal qualification of a person, not measured in terms of mental ability but eligibility to act. In other words, a person deemed legally incompetent does not have the power to enter a legal contract. Legal incompetency can also mean that a professional, such as a physician, is unfit to adequately perform her duties.

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