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The price to pay to fix NM’s beleaguered guardianship system

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Note to legislators: Infusing New Mexico’s beleaguered guardianship system with more accountability and oversight could cost just under $1 million, with most of the money paying for computer software to spot suspicious spending in reports filed by court-appointed conservators and guardians.

The cost estimate was presented Friday to the state Supreme Court guardianship commission, which is wrapping up nine months of study. It is tasked with recommending how to improve the system that puts the decision making for mentally or physically impaired people into the hands of professional companies or family members.

The push for reform has gained momentum with recent federal criminal allegations that executives from two nonprofit firms that handled guardianship and/or conservatorship duties in New Mexico have embezzled millions of dollars of client funds. The companies, Desert State Life Management and Ayudando Guardians, Inc., have since closed.

With the 30-day legislative session less than two months away, the Supreme Court’s commission on Friday prioritized a wish list of remedies that would require legislative funding. So far, Gov. Susana Martinez hasn’t formally put the issue on the agenda for the session.

At the top of the guardianship commission’s list is the one-time purchase of software used in Minnesota courts that is designed to red flag unusual purchases or inconsistencies in annual reports to the court from conservators who handle finances for an incapacitated person. Commission vice chair Patricia Galindo told the group that the software would cost from $400,000 to $600,000.

Hiring auditors who would then investigate and reconcile inconsistencies would cost about $76,455 annually.

The third proposal – hiring special masters or hearing officers to hear grievances filed by family members or interested persons against guardians or conservators – would require about $123,726 a year, including salary and benefits.

Galindo said one or two hearing officers could work with the courts statewide to bring issues to the attention of the judges who appointed the guardian or conservator.

Purchasing the software alone would be a band-aid solution but a “definite improvement,” said Galindo, an attorney who works for the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Annual status reports are required to be filed with the courts for each person under a guardianship or conservatorship.

“We’ve had judges get boxes of receipts with no beginning balance and no ending balance,” she said. The Minnesota computer software would require at least beginning balances and reports would be filed electronically, Galindo added.

Overshadowing the commission meeting Friday in Albuquerque was the separate but related issue of whether New Mexico should adopt a major overhaul of its guardianship/conservatorship laws recently proposed by the Chicago-based Uniform Law Commission. The commission spent two years drafting a standard set of guardianship laws for states to adopt.

Efforts are underway in some New Mexico legislative circles to propose the new uniform laws in the next legislative session as the solution to New Mexico’s troubled system.

The Supreme Court-appointed commission endorses the uniform law package, but voted Friday to seek a number of revisions if the legislation is introduced.

In early October, the commission unveiled 17 of its own recommendations after receiving input from family members and others about problems in New Mexico’s guardianship system. Some of the proposed remedies, such as hiring auditors and hearing officers, aren’t included in the new national uniform laws. “The commission has ongoing issues regarding implementation (of the uniform changes). Some people have suggested that it’s become the tail that wags the dog,” said commission chair Wendy York, a retired state district judge. “In and of itself, it (the uniform law proposal) is not the answer.”

The commission’s final report to the Supreme Court is expected on Jan. 1.