In the opening statement, Sen. Collins framed the issue of guardianship abuse with heartrending anecdotes from Nevada and Maine about the exploitation of elders at the hands of unscrupulous, court-appointed guardians. “Individuals can lose practically all of their civil rights when a guardian is ordered,” said Collins. “It is a legal appointment made by a court, and in many cases it is justified and protects the individual. But … in some cases the guardian exploits the vulnerable person, and it is often very difficult to reverse the guardianship.” Currently, an estimated 1.5 million adults are under guardian care.
However, according to a Forbes summary of the proceedings, the panel of four experts told the committee members that “the vast majority of elder financial abuse by guardians can be prevented.”
In her testimony, Kohn identified four fundamental problems with the current guardianship system in the United States:
- Some people who are subject to guardianship should not be.
- Many people subject to guardianship are subject to more restrictive arrangements than they need.
- A subset of guardians act in ways that violate the rights and insult the humanity of those they serve.
- Existing systems and rules unintentionally create incentives that exacerbate these problems.
Specifically, the Act:
- provides clear decision-making standards for guardians;
- incentivizes limited guardianships over full ones by making it easier to petition for a limited guardianship;
- limits the ability of unscrupulous guardians to drain assets by charging unreasonable fees; and
- creates new mechanisms to monitor guardian behavior at minimal cost to the public, by leveraging persons interested in the welfare of the individual subject to guardianship.
Kohn also suggested to the committee that guardians be mandated to inform the courts when people under their care are able to make their own decisions again. As reported by Forbes, Kohn explained that many stroke victims, for instance, can quickly recover their decision-making ability. “A guardian should be appointed only when a person cannot make their own decisions and is at risk of harm without the aid of someone to oversee their affairs,” said Kohn.
Watch the hearing and Kohn’s testimony.
In the afternoon, Kohn testified to the Social Security Administration (SSA) at its National Disability Forum on “Financial Independence: Directing the Management of One’s Social Security Benefits.” At the session, Kohn discussed reform of the Representative Payee Program, a Social Security Administration initiative that provides financial management for beneficiaries who are unable to manage their Social Security or Supplemental Security Income payments.
Kohn’s testimony focused on the steps that can be taken to increase the likelihood that SSA appoints representative payees (individuals who manage Social Security benefits for another) for beneficiaries who need them, and not for those who do not. She discussed how parallel issues are addressed in the context of guardianship, as well as lessons the administration could learn from UGCOPAA.
For instance, Kohn urged the SSA to tie appointments of representative payees to beneficiaries’ functional needs and suggested how this might be facilitated. Moreover, Kohn recommended that better processes for termination of appointments and restoration of beneficiaries’ rights be created, and she discussed the relationship between surrogate appointments and supported decision-making and the role of person-centered decision-making standards.
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Nina Kohn Testifies to Senate Special Committee on Aging and Social Security Administration