Guardianship bill clears first Senate committee

From left, Sen. Jim White, R-Albuquerque, District Judge Shannon Bacon and Santa Fe attorney Jack Burton answer questions about White’s proposal to overhaul guardianship laws. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A Senate committee on Thursday endorsed a proposal aimed at improving protections for people who are incapacitated and placed under legal guardianship.

But even supporters of the bill said they expect it to undergo significant changes at its next stop – the Senate Judiciary Committee, potentially the last stop before the proposal reaches the Senate floor.

Much of Thursday’s debate was technical. Judges, attorneys, advocacy groups and family members affected by New Mexico’s guardianship law spent about two hours going over the 187-page bill almost line by line, and they seemed to agree that more changes are warranted.

But no one disputed the need to update the rules and procedures covering legal guardians and conservators – court appointees who are supposed to make legal decisions and look after the assets of people who can’t do so themselves.

Santa Fe resident Cameron Graham told senators that his own family is an example of why the law must be updated. A nonprofit trust company stole his son’s assets, he said.

“We are dealing with a terrible situation,” Graham said. “The impacts on his mother and I have just been profound.”

The bipartisan proposal, Senate Bill 19, is aimed at opening up court hearings and records, protecting people from financial abuse and ensuring that family members and friends can still visit their loved ones.

Many of the people placed under guardianship are elderly, and sometimes they have dementia.

Republican Sen. James White and Democratic Rep. Gail Chasey, both of Albuquerque, are sponsoring the legislation.

District judges raised some concerns about the bill – especially about additional costs to carry out the provisions of the legislation.

Several senators said they hoped to win support from their colleagues for money to support the bill.

“I feel we have a responsibility to fund it,” said Sen. Liz Stefanics, D-Cerrillos. “We have been treating our disabled quite badly, and we need some reforms.”

The Senate Public Affairs Committee voted 7-0 to recommend passage of the bill, which now heads to the Judiciary Committee.

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