Understanding Legal Issues

Hoarding disorder can have serious and devastating consequences. Beyond those relevant to housing, other consequences include:

  • Public health and/or fire safety problems that put the home at risk for condemnation
  • Neglect or abuse of children, elders, or disabled people living in the home due to accumulated possessions that threaten their safety (e.g., fire hazards, lack of clear pathways, risk of falling), impede development and care (e.g., space for children to play or do homework, have friends visit), or permit routine care activities (e.g., a functioning kitchen, a place to eat meals, access to a shower or bathtub).
  • The mistreatment of animals due to animal hoarding

People with hoarding disorder may fail to recognize these dangers of their hoarding behavior, a characteristic that may stem from the nature of hoarding disorder itself. It is not surprising, then, that those with hoarding disorder may not feel motivated to change the conditions in the home. However, as the severity of hoarding disorder increases, sometimes others must act to prevent harm – in these cases, they can turn to the legal system for support.

The following are some situations in which the legal system becomes involved in cases of hoarding disorder.

  • A landlord may petition the court to evict a tenant when excessive possessions or unsanitary conditions violate a lease
  • Protective service workers may seek guardianship of children, disabled, or older adults when they determine that the consequences of hoarding disorder constitute abuse or neglect of these individuals
  • Members of the public health or fire departments may appear before a judge for a court order to bring a property in compliance with health and safety codes or, in extreme cases, to condemn the property
  • Animal welfare workers may petition the court to remove abused or neglected animals from their owner

Standard legal interventions in cases of hoarding disorder often involve sanctions, such as evicting the individual, mandating a clean out, or removing vulnerable individuals from the home. When this happens without other intervention, the underlying disorder is not addressed and recidivism is typically high. A growing number of judges and lawyers across the country are becoming aware that the legal system can play a key role in effecting enduring change in hoarding disorder cases with appropriate interventions that reflect understanding of hoarding as a social and personal problem, respect for the rights of individuals, and protection of those who are affected.

Officers of the court are working together with social service providers to implement a more sophisticated approach that coordinates both pressure on the individual to change and support in making necessary changes. A key part of this process is creating an explicit plan that clarifies necessary changes in the home and establishes a timeline to reach mandated benchmarks. For those who decline treatment but fail to make progress, judges can mandate treatment or other human service intervention.