First, holiday greetings to all. Here’s hoping the joy of the season follows you into 2022!
For nearly 14 years, I have written this crime and justice column. I believe it is the only weekly column dedicated to those two issues, which affect all of us.
I write today to say so long, for now.
As many readers know, one of my longtime concerns has been the predatory guardianship system in this country. Called conservatorship in some states – think the Britney Spears case – it is a court-approved procedure whereby a judge, often on the flimsiest of evidence, can rule someone “incapacitated” and appoint a stranger to assume total personal and financial control of that person’s life.
I began investigating guardianship in 2015 and discovered it starts with a simple legal document, the Petition for Guardianship. It is designed to spell out, in detail, why the proposed “wards of the court” cannot care for themselves. Anyone can hire a lawyer to write this petition: an angry relative, an unrelated estate lawyer, a former lover, someone who is owed money or a scam artist posing as a caregiver. And, if a lawyer presents an Emergency Petition for Guardianship, it speeds up. Attorneys in this work are easy to find.
I also learned many petitions are exaggerated. They sometimes contain downright lies about the mental state of the prospective ward and the behavior of their family. For example, elders who simply have some memory issues are routinely declared as having dementia or Alzheimer’s. Adult children are regularly accused of physical, emotional or financial abuse of their aging parent. Fact checking of these petitions is often nonexistent. Many judges simply take the petitioning lawyer’s word as gospel, conducting secret sessions without even notifying the targeted ward or their family. Once ensnared in the system, it is virtually impossible to escape since a judge who initiates a guardianship rarely rules to undo his or her original judgment. And, now, it’s not just the elderly who are targets.
These days, younger people – those who received sizeable workmen’s comp settlements, won multimillion dollar medical malpractice suits, are veterans or intellectually or physically disabled with generous monthly government checks – have all fallen victim in states across the country.
While some states have begun to adopt laws to reform guardianship, this flawed system is the most crucial civil rights issue of our time. Millions are affected.
Guardian/ward relationships sometimes work out well, especially if a loving relative or friend is appointed. But, too often, the court capriciously decides no one in the family is fit and a for-profit stranger is appointed. That person can hire as many others as they like to care for the protected person; the ward’s estate pays the bills.
A government estimate from 2018 put the number of Americans caught up in guardianship at 1.3 million. Activists in the field believe it could now be closer to 2 million, but no one knows for sure because there is no official state or federal tally kept. To give you an idea of how much money is at stake: It’s calculated at any given time the collective amount of wards’ assets is at least $50 billion. With that much money available is it any wonder such a legally sanctioned system would attract the criminal element? Informed critics estimate predatory players illegally divert multiple billions from this monstrous money cache every year.
Thanks to the Britney Spears conservatorship battle, my pet topic has finally made headlines. And I have been engaged to write a book about my deep-dive findings. A sabbatical is in order since I don’t think I can diligently write a weekly column and a book simultaneously.
I will miss writing this weekly offering and receiving your comments, pro and con. But wish me luck. I hope my book will enlighten and prompt serious reform laws.
The guardianship system was designed to help the most helpless Americans. It’s time to either return to that or scrap the system and come up with a new plan to help those who cannot fend for themselves.