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2010: Legal capacity and proxy decision making

Issues surrounding loss of capacity

Chapter 6 of the Guardianship Act (N° 1015) of 20 August 2007  deals with the issue of legal competence. The term "den umyndige" (the legally disqualified) is used to refer to a person who has been declared incapable of managing his/her own affairs. Such disqualification is not an automatic process of the guardianship process. It is used to prevent a person from putting their own assets and financial interests at risk and/or to prevent them from being financially exploited. In 2003, less than 10% of guardianship judgements were supplemented by legal disqualification (Danielsen, 2007). Once a person has been classed as legally disqualified, s/he can dispose over what s/he has earned after having been deprived of the right to legally conduct business, can dispose of this as a gift or as a free inheritance through a will and can spend what has been left by the guardian. Moreover, guardianship does not entail the loss of legal capacity to act in personal matters. The person under guardianship is legally responsible unless he or she has been officially deprived of the legal right to conduct business.

Proxy decision making


Conditions for the appointment of a guardian

Chapter 2 of the Guardianship Act (2007) deals with the guardianship of adults who are unable to take care of their own affairs due to mental illness (including severe dementia), retarded psychological development or other forms of serious impaired health. As long as three criteria have been met (medical, legal and needs based), a guardian can be appointed.

The system of guardianship is extremely flexible. A guardian (or joint guardians) can be appointed to handle the person's financial affairs and/or personal matters and in both cases, guardianship can be limited to specific assets or matters.

However, the appointment of a guardian is only necessary if the personal affairs of a person with limited or even non-existent capacity cannot be satisfactorily managed in an informal way.

How is guardianship arranged?

The request can be made by the person him/herself, the person's spouse, children, parents, siblings or close relatives; the Municipal Council; the Public administration or the Chief of Police. The same people can also request a change or cancellation of the guardianship, as can the guardian him/herself. The request is then sent to the Public administration (to the court if it involves a request for the loss of the right to conduct business). The person making the request must provide justification and state the nature and extent of the proposed guardianship.

The Public administration decides on guardianship unless it is considered inappropriate to handle the matter administratively or if the person objects, in which case, it is handed over to the court. All final administrative decisions can be brought before the court by the person concerned or his/her close relatives. However, in 2003 only 16% of guardianship cases were handled in court and there were only 3 appeals against administrative decisions between 1997 and 2006 (Danielsen, 2007).

The court is also responsible for making the decision if the person's right to conduct business is to be suspended  i.e. only a judge can remove a person’s legal capacity.

In order to decide whether guardianship should be established, the Public administration (Statsforvaltningen) or the court obtains a declaration from a doctor on the state of health of the person and may contact people who know the person for additional information.

In all cases, the person in question has the right to be informed of the proceedings and can make a written or verbal statement on the matter if s/he so desires and is still able to do so.

Who can be a guardian

Most guardians (about two thirds) are relatives or close friends but if none are available or willing to be guardian or if there are disagreements or a conflict of interests a professional guardian is appointed e.g. a lawyer, a member of the clergy or a social worker.

The duties and responsibilities of guardians

The powers of the guardian depend on the particularities of the court decision. Generally speaking, however, the guardian is responsible for taking care of the interests of the person under guardianship. Whilst the decision is being made by the Court or Council, a temporary guardian may be appointed.

Guardianship only covers major legal issues which are stipulated in the guardianship order. It does not cover everyday decisions concerning the welfare and supervision of the person, e.g. shopping, taking care of laundry, cleaning, etc. The distinction between legal decisions and welfare/supervision decisions is not always clear-cut, although according to Buss, legal decisions include those relating to employment, accommodation  and if necessary, dealing with public authorities.

Joint representation is possible whereby the guardian and the adult have to act jointly. This kind of representation is used if a person only needs help to administer their capital and take care of their economic interests. Its use has gone down from 10% to 5%of all cases of guardianship between 1997 and 2003 (Danielsen, 2007)

One of the personal decisions covered by §5 of the Guardianship Act is to authorise the participation of a person with impaired or non-existent capacity in biomedical trials. However, it is important to note that whilst the guardian can make certain decisions, s/he cannot make a decision to which the person under guardianship is opposed and has no legal right to enforce decisions. Consequently, if a person with dementia is moved to a nursing home on the decision of the guardian and s/he is opposed to this move and leaves, the guardian cannot have the person detained or force him/her to stay.

If guardianship includes management of the person's financial affairs, then s/he must ensure that assets are preserved and yield a reasonable return. The guardian must further ensure that money is used for the person's own benefit and can if s/he sees fit, entrust money so that the person under guardianship can see to his/her own needs. If the person has been declared legally disqualified, the guardian can prevent him/her from disposing of resources (with the Public administration's approval and if this is considered necessary for the welfare of the latter).

How are the financial affairs of the person under guardianship handled?

Chapter 5 of the Guardianship Act (N° 1015) of 20 August 2007 provides clear instructions for the management of the person's financial affairs, i.e. cash, bonds, mortgage deeds, inheritance, investments etc. The person's assets and any inheritance to which s/he is entitled must be preserved in the form they had when guardianship was commenced. Any future consumption of assets (including investment) must be approved by the Public administration.

The guardian is responsible for real estate, personal property, claims to payment in kind and sums under an amount which is set by the Minister of Justice and is currently EUR 10,000. Cash, disposable means, bonds, mortgage deeds and other securities must be handled by the management department of specific financial institutions which have been approved by the Minister of Justice. They are called forvaltningsafdelinger. If the guardian wants to have cash invested, there are very few possibilities. For example, bonds have to be sold on the regular market and only half of the capital can be invested in shares (only 15% in any one company) (Danielsen, 2007).

At the beginning of the guardianship, it is the guardian's duty to draw up a list of assets and liabilities and to record, note and certify registration of legal disqualification.

Measures to protect the ward from misuse of power

Guardians must try to involve the person under guardianship when making important decisions, although this obligation is limited to the extent that the person is able to understand. If s/he is married (and not separated) a declaration must be obtained from the spouse. The guardian cannot oblige the person under guardianship to stand bail or provide security for a third party.

The guardian must keep a record of the administration of assets and use of income in line with the rules set by the Minister of Justice. The latter can also require the guardian to obtain approval from the Public administration for certain decisions which may include the disposal of income.

Permission from the regional office is needed to make decisions of an unusual character. Permission is also needed to buy or sell real estate, make debts, make gifts (unless they are of no great significance) and to refuse gifts. The regional offices can request information from guardians and instruct them to make certain decisions.

If the guardian neglects his/her obligations, s/he is responsible for compensation to the person under guardianship for damage caused either intentionally or as a result of negligence.

A guardian can be dismissed if it is found that s/he has misused his/her position, if s/he is found to be unsuitable for the assignment or if it is necessary out of concern for the person under guardianship. The appointment is annulled if the guardian him/herself comes under guardianship.

Special guardians

In certain circumstances, an appointed guardian may be unable to carry out his/her duties. This could happen if the guardian entered into a legal transaction with the person under guardianship, if there was a clash of interests in a legal matter, if the guardian was for any reason prevented from carrying out his/her duties. In such cases a special guardian would be appointed by the Public administration. If the events preventing the guardian from carrying out his/her duties are merely of a temporary nature, another guardian can be appointed on a temporary basis.

Compensation and liability of guardians

Relatives and friends are not paid for their services but can get necessary expenses refunded. Professional guardians can deduct EUR 300 for the upkeep of their office. They usually receive EUR 700 per annum for dealing with financial issues and EUR 800 for dealing with personal matters. Larger amounts must be approved by the regional office and the request must be justified. The State pays the cost of guardianship unless the person’s income is large enough (e.g. over EUR 20,000) in which case s/he pays the guardian him/herself (Danielsen, 2007).

Duration of guardianship

A guardianship measure only lasts for as long as the person needs a guardian. If the person becomes capable of managing his/her own affairs again, then the guardianship has to stop.

The right to appeal

Appeals against guardianship measures decided by the Public Administration can be made to the court. Appeals against guardianship measures decided by a court can be made to the High Court.

Capacity in specific domains

Marriage and divorce

The guardian has to give his/her consent both to marriage and divorce.

Voting capacity

According to Article 1 of the Parliamentary Election Act of Denmark of 2009, every person of Danish nationality, over the age of 18, and permanently resident in the realm, holds a franchise for the Folketing unless s/he has been deprived of his/her legal capacity under section 6 of the Guardianship Act.  

It is the duty of the local council to correct the electoral list up to and including election day if it receives notification of factors affecting voting rights such as the initiation or abolition of guardianships involving the deprivation of legal capacity (Article 22, §2).

Testamentary capacity

If a public notary does not consider that a person has testamentary capacity, s/he must refuse that person’s will. This is not based on any medical assessment. A court may decide that a will made by a person with mental incapacity is invalid.

Contractual capacity

According to §§ 6 and 13 of the Guardianship Act (N° 1015) of 20 August 2007, a person can be deprived of the right to conduct business. This protective measure can be applied if when determining the scope and extent of guardianship, the person with dementia is deemed to be incapable of carrying out business transactions without jeopardising his/her assets, income or other economic interests (e.g. through depreciation or interference with economic exploitation). Loss of legal capacity is total in that it cannot be limited to specific assets or affairs. Deprivation of the right to conduct business must be officially registered in accordance with §48 of the Law of Official Registration. However, according to §8, a person should not be deprived of his/her right to conduct business if his/her interests can be sufficiently taken care of by the guardian(s).

If a person who has been judged legally disqualified enters into an agreement independently and without being qualified to do so, the other party can withdraw from the agreement, unless it has been fulfilled or approved in a binding manner. However, as long as the legally disqualified person fulfils an agreement to do with personal work, the other party cannot withdraw from the agreement.

A guardian can permit a legally disqualified person to independently carry on a trade or other occupation.

Criminal responsibility

According to article 16 of the Danish Penal Code No 1068 of 6 November 2008 (with later amendments), a person who commits a crime shall not be punished if s/he is not responsible for his/her actions at the time the offence was committed "owing to insanity or states which may be placed on an equal footing therewith, or a high degree of mental deficiency". If this state was caused by the consumption of alcohol or other inebriates, a punishment may be imposed if the circumstances call for it. People who at the time of the offence were in a less severe state of mental deficiency shall not be punished unless special circumstances call for a punishment to be imposed.


  • Danielson (2007), Speech made at the International Guardianship Conference in Bergen (NL)



Last Updated: Tuesday 27 March 2012


  • Acknowledgements

    The above information was published in the 2011 Dementia in Europe Yearbook as part of Alzheimer Europe's 2010 Work Plan which received funding from the European Union in the framework of the Health Programme. AE also gratefully acknowledges the support it received from Fondation Médéric Alzheimer for its project on legal capacity and proxy decision making in dementia
  • European Union
  • Fondation Médéric Alzheimer