Finally, Washington is taking steps to protect older Americans who have fallen into an exploitation trap set for them by state courts. Federal officials will soon be empowered to go into states to investigate – and prosecute – unscrupulous court-appointed guardians and conservators who prey on their elderly wards.
This is a really big deal in my book, and a long overdue first step in curbing the obvious abuses of this mostly secret system. According to experts there are at least 1.3 million Americans currently living under guardianship control representing between $50 billion and $300 billion in assets that are at risk for exploitation.
Both houses of Congress have now passed Senate Bill 178, the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act, which strengthens the laws on elder abuse, neglect and exploitation on several fronts, including targeting telemarketers, e-mail scammers and the like.
But Congress has also now finally recognized the well-documented nationwide scandal wherein judges sidestep family members and appoint outside, for-profit guardians to handle the financial and personal affairs of aging Americans. In the end, hard-earned estates are frequently plundered, and families are left grieving. Inheritances wind up paying the fees of total strangers.
Many appointed guardians are Good Samaritans who truly help the elderly who either have no family or family that is not available to help them in their final years. These kind souls step in to handle all aspects of the senior’s life, from medical matters and housing to finances and funeral arrangements.
However, after more than two years of investigation I’ve discovered a veritable racket of uncaring and dishonest guardians, their staffs and elder-law lawyers who concentrate more on billable hours – paid for out of the ward’s estate – than what is truly in the elder’s best interests. These scoundrels have the power to isolate loving family members who ask too many questions about their loved one’s situation or where their money is going. Many relatives told me they hadn’t been allowed to see their aged parent in months, or even years, before they died.
Once the president signs this newly passed bill into law, the Department of Justice will assign at least one assistant U.S. Attorney to each federal judicial district to investigate reports of wrongdoing by guardians. They will be empowered to bring in specially trained FBI agents to help investigate the complaints. And, the bill requires the DOJ to set up an elder abuse resource group to facilitate information sharing among all federal prosecutors. When a dodgy guardian tactic is uncovered in one state, prosecutors will share their findings so counterparts can be on the lookout in other states.
And, within 60 days of the president’s signing the bill, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions will designate a DOJ Elder Justice czar to oversee this new investigative process.
“It’s not the best bill ever, but it’s a start,” Rick Black, executive director of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, told me by phone.
The AAAPG and other family-centered watchdog groups are happy that Washington has now acknowledged there is a major problem with state guardianship systems that see judges routinely declare absent citizens as “incapacitated,” take as truth the claims of one family member over all others and continue to appoint questionable characters as guardians in lucrative cases without much supervision.
And it’s not just Congress that has taken notice, according to Black. His non-profit organization keeps track of guardian horror stories from all across the country. By AAAPG’s count, federal investigators are already actively looking into questionable guardian practices in at least six states. Black ticked off the list.
“We know from families who have contacted us (the feds) are investigating cases in New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Florida, Washington and New Mexico,” where a 28-count indictment on charges of conspiracy, fraud and theft was recently unsealed against Ayudando, a private guardianship company. More indictments are expected against others.
In Florida, a federal case brought by the son of a millionaire Texas oilman against two guardianship lawyers ended with a whopping $16.4 million award. No action was taken against the judge who was supposed to be supervising the lawyer’s activities.
“That’s one thing this new bill doesn’t do,” Black said. “It doesn’t address the problem with the judicial system … judges who appoint these guardians in case after case with hardly any followup.” And, as Black notes, the system in states is so entrenched and unaccountable only action from the federal level can fix it.
The bill also doesn’t establish a way to keep accurate track of how many Americans are held in guardianship, nor does it call for a central registry where complaints against unsavory court appointees can be lodged. Without a means to keep track of unsuitable guardians, they can be appointed over and over.
But like the man said, at least it’s a start. Sign this bill, President Trump. ASAP.
www.DianeDimond.com; email to Diane@DianeDimond.com.