More than 1.5 million adults in the U.S. are under guardian supervision. As a recent article in The New Yorker makes clear, they face unprecedented risks of losing their homes, their savings, and their legal rights.
A legal guardian is tasked with protecting the interests of another individual (called a “ward”) who is unable to care for him- or herself. Guardians are granted authority, by law, to manage a ward’s legal affairs. They assume broad control over a ward’s assets, their medical care, their living arrangements, and other considerations that affect a ward’s day-to-day life.
Yet, as The New Yorker details, many guardians have begun to abuse their power. They sell their wards’ possessions and pocket the profits, and prevent their wards’ family members from interfering with such transactions. What’s most disturbing is that this behavior is, at present, entirely legal.
The fall of the Norths
The story in The New Yorker follows the Norths, a couple residing in an “active adult” community in Las Vegas who were instructed one morning, without warning or reason, to leave their home. If they did not comply, they were told, the police would be called to remove them forcibly.
“Without realizing it,” we learn, “the Norths had become temporary wards of the court.” An established guardian, whom they had never met, had alleged that the couple presented “a substantial risk for mismanagement of medications, financial loss and physical harm.” Although the Norths had not undergone any cognitive assessments, let alone received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or dementia, the courts granted the guardian legal custody over the couple.
What follows is the stuff of nightmares. The guardian sold the North’s house, cars, and other belongings and kept the proceeds as legal fees. She moved the Norths into an assisted living facility, where the couple was dosed with sedatives to keep them docile. Through complicated legal maneuvers, she kept the Norths’ daughter from seeing them.
It was only through a combination of luck and resources that the Norths were able, after several months, to free themselves from the guardian. But not before their life savings were depleted, and their confidence sapped. They now live in a single room in their daughter’s house, and spend most of the day in bed, watching TV. According to the article, they will likely remain there for the rest of their lives.
How to prevent this from happening
Nationally, efforts are underway to enhance oversight of the U.S. guardian program, so that strangers are less easily able to seize control of their wards’ lives. But effective regulations could take years to draft and enact.
In the meantime, individuals can take steps to protect themselves and their family members. The surest way to prevent a sinister guardian from interfering with one’s life is to plan ahead. Namely, by working with a qualified estate planning attorney, one can ensure that a trusted family member or friend – and not a court-appointed stranger – will act as one’s legal proxy in the event of incapacitation. Doing so is relatively simple, though it’s important for individuals to work with a lawyer with demonstrated experience and skill in such matters.
Until the required changes are made to the system, one will have to wait for the day when a program intended to help the vulnerable actually helps, rather than exploits, them.