Civil Commitment

What are the legal procedures for getting a person “committed” against his will?  Get a legal expert’s take on the law of involuntary civil commitment and the related concept of guardianship.

Adam Freedman
December 12, 2011


Today’s topic: Civil Commitment 

And now, your daily dose of legalese:  This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader.  In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer.  In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

What is Involuntary Civil Commitment?

This is the first of a two-part article dealing with involuntary civil commitment.  Legal Lad addressed this topic a few years ago, but given the importance of this topic, I think it’s worth taking a fresh look.  In today’s article, I’ll discuss what family members can do if they want to have someone committed for their own good.  In the next article, I address how a person can resist such committal.

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Back to the issue.

The Legal Standard for Civil Commitment

The good news – I think – is that it is not easy to force a person into an institution against his or her will.  Gone are the days when family members could casually decide that it was time for the proverbial “crazy aunt in the attic” to be shipped off to Happy Acres.  In order to prove a case of “involuntary commitment,” or, as it is also called “civil commitment,” a family member will usually have to convince a court that the person is either:

  1. A danger to himself; or

  2. A danger to others; or

  3. Unable to take decent care of himself.

Keep in mind, however, that this is a matter of state law and there are variations among the states.  As I so often have to remind you, you’ll want to consult with a lawyer in your own state for specifics. 

A Court Proceeding is Necessary for Civil Commitment

In any event, a family member (or anybody else, for that matter) can start the commitment process by filing a petition in court. Depending on the state, it may be the probate court, family court, or some other court that has jurisdiction over civil commitments.  Either way, the person who files the petition is called the “petitioner” and the person to be committed is called the “respondent.” 

The petitioner will have to produce evidence (such as the testimony of a physician or psychiatrist) that the respondent meets the standard for involuntary committal (which, again, is danger to self or others, or unable to care for him or herself).  The court may also select its own physicians to examine the respondent and advise the court on the necessity of civil commitment. 

The Right to be Represented by Counsel

[[AdMiddle]The respondent doesn’t have to sit there and listen to people question his or sanity.  He or she can always turn up the volume on the iPod and drown out everything the petitioner says.  Or – perhaps more practically – the respondent can hire a lawyer.  It’s a basic right, and if the respondent can’t afford counsel, the court is obliged to provide one.

Even though involuntary commitment sounds a lot like going to prison, “civil commitment” – as its name implies – is a civil, and not a criminal procedure.  That’s important because it means that the petitioner is not required to prove his or her case against the respondent “beyond a reasonable doubt” as is the case in criminal trials.  However, the petitioner will have meet a high burden of proof – he or she will have to prove their case by “clear and convincing evidence” which is a higher standard than in the usual civil case. 

Inpatient vs. Outpatient Commitment

If the petitioner proves his or her case, the court may order one of two different types of commitment.  The first is “inpatient commitment” – that is, the respondent will be confined to a mental institution – which is probably what most people imagine when they hear the words “involuntary commitment.”  But there is also “outpatient commitment” in which a person is ordered to receive prescribed treatment at a community mental health center or some other community outpatient setting.  Some states have a law requiring that the court order the “least restrictive” type of commitment appropriate in each case. 

Guardianship is Also an Option

So much for involuntary commitment.  But you should also be aware of the related concept of “guardianship.”  A guardian is a person appointed by a court to make decisions on behalf of another person (referred to as a “ward”) who is determined to be incapable of taking care of him or herself because of a mental or physical disability, disease, or addiction to alcohol or other drugs.  The procedure for guardianship is similar to civil commitment – the family members would have to bring a petition in court, and the respondent would have an opportunity to contest the petition.  However, if a guardian is appointed, that guardian may have authority to consent to outpatient treatment on behalf of the ward and – if the ward doesn’t comply with the outpatient treatment – the guardian may be able to get the ward admitted to an inpatient facility. 

Next episode, we’ll discuss strategies for avoiding involuntary commitment or guardianship.

Thank you for reading Legal Lad’s Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Lawful Life. You can send questions and comments to legal@quickanddirtytips.com. Please note that doing so will not create an attorney-client relationship and will be used for the purposes of this article only.

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