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Editorial: NM needs guardianship reforms across finish line

For many years, some of New Mexico’s most vulnerable people, those placed under court-appointed guardianships where they had virtually no rights or ability to make their own decisions, were stuck in a system shrouded in secrecy with practically no recourse. Objecting to their circumstances or how their assets were being spent could lead to their being cut off from family members or loved ones on a court-appointed guardian or conservator’s whim.

That changed last year with adoption of a major guardianship reform package that injected significant transparency into the system by opening hearings, expanding the number of people who had to be notified of proceedings and beefing up reporting requirements guardians and conservators were required to file with the court – giving more information to a judicial oversight function that didn’t work as it should have.

Now New Mexico can take another significant step forward via Senate Bill 395 by Sens. Jim White, R-Albuquerque, and Daymon Ely, D-Corrales. Their bill benefited from strong testimony by Supreme Court Justice Shannon Bacon, cleared the Senate unanimously and has just one committee in the House.

The measure would give those targeted for guardianship and those who care about them a greater voice in the process. People facing a guardianship petition could call witnesses and otherwise defend themselves in court against allegations they are incapacitated. It also provides for a new grievance procedure for complaints against guardians and conservators.

It all comes on the heels of a 2016 Journal investigative series that revealed real problems in the system. And speaking to the question voiced during a Journal town hall on guardianship issues – what can we do to protect ourselves? – the bill spells out ways to designate a guardian or conservator in advance. It also does away with the onerous practice allowing conservators to require waiver of liability of any misconduct or malfeasance claims before release of the final assets of an estate.

White, a sponsor of last year’s legislation, explains “we made laws a number of years ago to create this guardianship and conservatorship system to protect folks that can’t handle it themselves, and then people found a way to abuse it. So now we’re making laws to hopefully stop the abuse.”

There’s no apparent reason for these reforms to hit a snag in the closing days of the session, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a former secretary of the Department of Aging, should be happy to sign them. A lot of vulnerable people and their loved ones will be better off if that happens.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.