Guardians and Wards: A Medieval Practice that Lingers Today

Guardianship has been in the news lately as singer Britney Spears successfully fought to be freed from hers. The term “ward” wasn’t used to describe her, but that’s essentially what she was. I think before Britney Spears, the most famous ward was probably Maid Marian, sometimes said to be the ward of King Richard and/or Prince John in the Robin Hood stories. So, if the term “ward” makes you think of a singing animated fox in a pseudo-medieval gown (like it did for me), that’s not surprising, but it disguises a long and ugly history of wardships that continues today.

Olivia de Havilland as King Richard’s ward, Maid Marian

The medieval and Renaissance ward in England was a young nobleman or woman whose father had died before they reached their majority (21 for men, 14 for girls). Because the young person’s holdings reverted to the crown on their father’s death, the crown claimed guardianship of the ward and their holdings until they were old enough to take charge of it themselves (for men) or be married off (for girls). Generally, the crown didn’t really want to take care of all those children, so they would auction the kids off to the highest bidder – a guardian who benefitted from the lands of the ward and usually arranged the ward’s marriage to the advantage of the guardian (such as marrying them to a family member). Note that the mother or other family members might still be alive but would have to fight to be the guardian of the child and seldom succeeded. This was a financial arrangement for the crown and the best interest of the child rarely came into it. I found this both interesting and horrifying, and I wrote about it in Wishwood. This form of wardship was so frustrating to English noble families that it was one of the practices decried by insurgents in the British Civil Wars of the 1640s, and when the monarchy was restored after the war, medieval wardships were not.

Wishwood cover
In Wishwood, Kate’s guardian forced her into an arranged marriage, a situation many real-life wards would have faced.

Wardship in the English-speaking world didn’t end with the Restoration in 1660. There were and are situations where a person needs a guardian because their age or health makes them unable to care for themselves, either temporarily or permanently. Children might be wards of the court or wards of the state if their family is not able to care for them. Adults can also enter a guardianship or conservatorship if they are deemed unable to manage their own affairs (as Britney Spears was at the start). We would hope that, in our modern system, guardians are selected who care about their ward and that we’ve left the abuses of the past in the history books, though.

Sadly, this is not the case. In the US, guardianship rules vary by state, and some states make it VERY easy to put someone in a guardianship. As in, a practical stranger can have you declared incompetent and take over all of your financial affairs, up to and including putting you in a group home and selling your house and possessions to pay themselves for the trouble. In some states, there is a lucrative industry revolving around this practice and involving lawyers, judges, and long-term care facilities. Your family will have no say in the matter. And neither will you, because the horrifying part of guardianships is that the ward, being declared incompetent, essentially loses their personhood. They can’t go to court without the approval of their guardian who, obviously, is not going to let that happen. For a tale more terrifying than any ghost or horror story, read about how this has played out in Nevada (a state I would NOT recommend retiring to until they fix this!), then find out what the laws are in your state and if there is a way to protect yourself from this medieval practice that needs serious updating.

The New Yorker: How the Elderly Lose Their Rights

AP News: Guardians of the Elderly, Part One

AP News: Guardians of the Elderly, Part Two

And some potential solutions, especially if enough of us pressure lawmakers on behalf of the elderly and those with disabilities:

NPR: Unlike Britney Spears, others remain stuck