The growing problem of adult guardianship abuse is giving rise to calls for reform, as vulnerable elderly people caught up in this system sometimes end up being harmed and exploited by the very process that’s supposed to protect them.
A guardian is someone appointed by a court to make decisions on behalf of an incapacitated person, known as a “ward.” The process usually starts when a family member or social worker notifies the court that someone can no longer take care of himself or herself. If the court decides that the person is incapacitated, it often appoints a family member as guardian. However, if the family can’t agree on a guardian, or there’s no family member to serve, the court may appoint a public guardian. Public guardians are supposed to be neutral individuals hired to act in the ward’s best interest.
Unfortunately, lax laws, a lack of oversight, and poor guardian training sometimes lead to abuse. Once the court appoints a guardian, that guardian has complete control over the ward’s property and finances. Guardians can block family visits, determine where the ward will live, and sell property. In addition, guardians can charge fees for their services that are payable from the elderly person’s bank account, which can invite corruption. When a senior gets caught up in the guardianship system, it can be very difficult to get out. Seniors can be confused and overwhelmed after losing control of their lives to a guardian they don’t know.
Florida recently passed a law making changes to its public guardian system. The law creates an Office of Public and Professional Guardians that is required to create standard practices and rules, and has the power to revoke a guardianship. Other states are starting to pass new laws and strengthen or better enforce existing ones.
One force for change has been the late actor Peter Falk’s daughter, Catherine, who gained the right to visit her father only after an expensive court battle. Several states have passed so-called “Peter Falk Laws” that protect the rights of children, especially when a current spouse acting as guardian cuts off access by children of an earlier marriage.
If you think a loved one needs a guardian, consult with your attorney to determine the best steps. There may be less restrictive alternatives to guardianship. In addition, if your family can’t agree on the best course of action, you might benefit from elder law mediation.