Congress steps up to control court-ordered guardianships
Finally, Washington is taking steps to protect older Americans who have fallen into an exploitation trap set for them by state courts. Federal officials should soon be empowered to go into states to investigate — and prosecute — unscrupulous court-appointed guardians and conservators who prey on their elderly wards.
This is a really big deal, in my book, and a long-overdue first step in curbing the obvious abuses of this mostly secret system. According to experts, there are at least 1.3 million Americans currently living under guardianship control. They have between $50 billion and $300 billion in assets, which are at risk for exploitation.
Both houses of Congress have now passed the Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act, which would strengthen the laws on elder abuse, neglect and exploitation on several fronts, including that by telemarketers, email scammers and the like.
But Congress has also now finally recognized the well-documented nationwide scandal wherein judges sidestep family members and appoint outside for-profit guardians to handle the financial and personal affairs of aging Americans. In the end, hard-earned estates are frequently plundered, and families are left grieving. Inheritances wind up paying the fees of total strangers.
Many appointed guardians are good Samaritans who truly help the elderly who have either no family members or family members who are not available to help them in their final years. These kind souls step in to handle all aspects of seniors’ lives, from medical matters to housing to finances to funeral arrangements.
However, after more than two years of investigation, I’ve discovered a veritable racket of uncaring and dishonest guardians, their staffs, and elder law lawyers who concentrate more on billable hours (paid for out of the wards’ estates) than on what is truly in the elders’ best interests. These scoundrels have the power to isolate loving family members who ask too many questions about their loved one’s situation or where the money is going. Many relatives have told me they weren’t allowed to see their aged parents in the months — or even years — before they died.
If President Donald Trump were to sign this newly passed bill into law, the Department of Justice would assign at least one assistant U.S. attorney to each federal judicial district to investigate reports of wrongdoing by guardians. These assistant U.S. attorneys would be empowered to bring in specially trained FBI agents to help investigate the complaints. And the law would require the DOJ to set up an elder abuse resource group to facilitate information sharing among all federal prosecutors. When a dodgy guardian tactic is uncovered in one state, prosecutors could share their findings so counterparts could be on the lookout in other states.
And within 60 days of the president’s signing the bill, Attorney General Jeff Sessions would designate a DOJ elder justice czar to oversee this new investigative process.
“It’s not the best bill ever, but it’s a start,” Rick Black, executive director of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, told me on the phone.
The AAAPG and other family-centered watchdog groups are happy that Washington has now acknowledged there is a major problem with state guardianship systems that see judges routinely declaring absent citizens as “incapacitated,” taking as truth the claims of one family member over all others and continuing to appoint questionable characters as guardians in lucrative cases without much supervision.
And it’s not just Congress that has taken notice, according to Black. His nonprofit organization keeps track of guardian horror stories from all across the country. By AAAPG’s count, federal investigators are already actively looking into questionable guardian practices in at least six states. Black ticked off the list.
“We know from families who have contacted us (that the feds) are investigating cases in New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Florida, Washington and New Mexico,” where a 28-count indictment on charges of conspiracy, fraud and theft was recently unsealed against Ayudando, a private guardianship company. More indictments are expected against others.
In Florida, a federal case brought by the son of a millionaire Texas oilman against two guardianship lawyers ended with a whopping $16.4 million award. No action was taken against the judge who was supposed to be supervising the lawyer’s activities.
“That’s one thing this new bill doesn’t do,” Black said. “It doesn’t address the problem with the judicial system . . . judges who appoint these guardians in case after case with hardly any follow-up.” And, as Black notes, the system in states is so entrenched and unaccountable that only action on the federal level can fix it.
Nor does the bill address the need to keep accurate track of how many Americans are held in guardianship or call for a central registry where complaints against unsavory court appointees could be lodged. Without a means to keep track of unsuitable guardians, they can be appointed over and over.
But as the man said, at least it’s a start. Sign this bill, President Trump, ASAP.
* Diane Dimond is an investigative journalist and syndicated columnist.