Friday, October 30, 2015
From the Front Page of the Wall Street Journal: Abuse Plagues System of Legal Guardians for Adults
One day in March 2012, 71-year-old Linda McDowell received a knock at the door of her small Vancouver, Wash., home. Ms. McDowell needed court-appointed help, the visitor told her.
It turned out that Ms. McDowell’s former housemate and companion had pushed for a court petition claiming Ms. McDowell was unable to take care of herself. The petition said Ms. McDowell had recently made an unsafe driving maneuver, had been disruptive in a doctor’s office and, in a recent phone call, had seemed confused over the whereabouts of some personal papers.
Based on the motion, a judge ordered an attorney to act as a temporary guardian with control over Ms. McDowell’s money and medical care. Ms. McDowell was also to pay for these services.
“I was shocked,” says Ms. McDowell, who once worked as a conference manager for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration before a second career in real-estate investing. “I had never met this person, and here she was telling me I basically belonged to her.”
The visit marked the start of a 30-month stretch in Washington’s guardianship system that upended her life and drained much of her $700,000 in assets. People involved in her case still disagree about whether Ms. McDowell ever needed a guardian. But by the time a judge decided that one wasn’t necessary, the value of her assets had dropped by about $470,000, much of which was spent on several guardians and related expenses, court and bank records show.
“My savings are gone,” says Ms. McDowell, now living in a motor home near Sequim, Wash., with her dog, Sam. “They took everything.”
For decades, states have granted courts the power to appoint guardians or conservators for elderly or disabled people unable to tend to their basic needs. Most appointed guardians are family members, but judges can turn to a growing industry of professional, unrelated guardians.
The caretakers’ authority varies by case and jurisdiction, but often they are granted broad authority over a ward’s finances, medical care and living conditions. Unlike a power of attorney, which one person can grant to another and revoke at any time, guardianship is established by a judge and can only be revoked by the court.
Because guardianship systems vary by state and county and record-keeping systems are inconsistent, precise national data is unavailable. But the roughly 1.5 million adult guardianships in the U.S. involve an estimated $273 billion in assets, according to Anthony Palmieri, auditor for the guardianship fraud program in Palm Beach County, Fla.
According to a survey on guardianship conducted last year by the Administrative Conference of the United States, a federal agency, 64% of the 855 judges and staff who responded said their courts had taken action against at least one guardian for misconduct-related issues in the previous three years.
Guardians across the country have faced prosecution for wrongdoing in the past year. In July, Stephen Grisham, a guardian in Minneapolis, was sentenced to a year in prison and ordered to pay restitution of nearly $160,000 after pleading guilty to stealing from his wards. He is “a very good person who made a horrible mistake,” says his attorney, Thomas Plunkett.
The problems are more urgent as aging baby boomers cause the population of seniors nearly to double by 2050, according to Census estimates. In New Jersey, the number of adult guardianships added annually increased 21% from 2009 to 2014, to 2,689 cases.
Guardians properly supervised by courts typically do a good job protecting elderly people from exploitation by acquaintances and others, says Catherine Seal, a guardianship attorney in Colorado Springs, Colo., and president-elect of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys. “The worst cases that I see are the ones where there is no guardian,” she says.
In one case Ms. Seal handled several years ago, she says an elderly woman was befriended by a neighbor who persuaded her to buy a condo and include the neighbor’s name on the title. A year later, the neighbor had the woman transfer full ownership to her and moved in to the unit. After Ms. Seal was appointed conservator, she sold the condo and recovered the investment for the elderly woman.
Expenses that arise as a result of a guardianship, including lawyers for both the guardians and wards, typically get paid from the ward’s assets. (In some jurisdictions, there is a public guardian’s office that handles cases for indigent clients.) The financial arrangement, critics say, encourages lawyers and guardians to perpetuate guardianships indefinitely.
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Abuse Plagues System of Legal Guardians for Adults