A recent article in The New Yorker reveals, with unprecedented detail, just how easy it is for senior citizens to lose their legal rights – and control over their lives. The article centers on the issue of guardianship, wherein one individual (the “guardian”) is granted court-sanctioned authority over another individual (the “ward”)’s financial and personal matters.
The guardianship system is in place to protect individuals who are too vulnerable to care for themselves. Simply put, a guardian is tasked with serving the best interests of his or her ward. As The New Yorker makes clear, however, “guardians can sell the assets and control the lives of senior citizens without their consent—and reap a profit from it.”
Unfortunately, such activity is becoming more and more common. And the guardian need not have any prior relationship with the ward in order to establish legal custody.
Losing One's House. Losing One's Family.
The article, bluntly titled “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights,” details the stories of several seniors who have suffered abuse at the hands of their guardians. They have been forcibly removed from their homes, which were subsequently sold. They have been separated from family members who could otherwise care for them. They have been placed on sedative medications to keep them docile in substandard living conditions. All of this is legally sanctioned. All of it is becoming more typical. As The New Yorker states, many adults “languish under guardianship when they no longer need it, or never did…[and] guardianship is generally permanent, leaving no way out.”
There are, at present, more than 1.5 million U.S. adults under guardian care. According to an auditor for a guardianship fraud program in Palm Beach County, this represents more than $273 billion in assets. Yet what will happen to these assets remains unknown. There is little oversight with regard to how guardians treat their wards’ assets; “states do not keep complete figures on guardianship cases,” the article notes, “and, in most jurisdictions, the court records are sealed.”
As many seniors have found, one’s life savings can disappear almost overnight, and there is little that can be done to prevent or reverse this from happening.
Protection Against Ill-Intentioned Guardians
There is one potent defense against ill-intentioned guardians, though: Planning ahead. By working with a qualified estate planning attorney, individuals can establish their own guidelines for what will happen to them in the event they become unable to care for themselves.
By developing an estate plan, one can name trusted family members or friends to serve as one’s guardian, rather than letting the courts appoint a stranger. Moreover, one’s lawyer can serve to protect one’s interests at every step.
Life is rife with uncertainty and unwanted surprised. It’s important to plan for them whenever possible.