Court Oversight of Guardianship Inadequate, National Report Finds

Many courts are still doing a poor job of monitoring guardians to prevent the abuse of wards, the persons placed under guardianship, according to a new survey by AARP and the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on Law and Aging.

"Without effective monitoring, guardianship can become a human-rights gulag," said Charles Sabatino, director of the ABA Commission. The survey results showed "what a long way we have to go to make monitoring real," Sabatino said. "And the wards bear the brunt of the inadequacies."

If an adult becomes incapable of making responsible decisions due to a mental disability, the court will appoint a substitute decision maker, often called a "guardian," but in some states called a "conservator" or other term. The guardian is authorized to make legal, financial, and health care decisions for the ward. While the system often works, sometimes it backfires when vulnerable seniors become victims of abuse and neglect at the hands of the individual charged with protecting their interests.

The AARP/ABA study, a followup to a 1991 examination of guardianship oversight practices, surveyed hundreds of guardianship experts with frontline experience throughout the nation '“ judges, court managers, guardians, elder law attorneys and legal representatives of people with disabilities.

The surveyors found that while almost all states now require guardians to submit regular reports on a ward's finances and personal status, many courts do not go beyond simply making sure the proper papers have been filed. More than one-third of the survey respondents said no one verifies the information in the reports, while only 16 percent said that someone verifies every report.

Meanwhile, more than 40 percent reported that no one is assigned to visit individuals under guardianship, and only one-fourth said that someone visits regularly.

Money is a large reason for the lack of oversight. Nearly half of respondents said funding for monitoring is unavailable or insufficient.

Several recommendations in the new survey '” such as using volunteers to augment reviews by court staff '” were part of the original study 15 years ago.

"It's pretty sad, really," said study co-author Erica Wood of the ABA. "We hoped courts would take them and run with them."

For more on the report, Guardianship Monitoring: A National Survey of Court Practices click here.

For a Los Angeles Times article on the report, click here.

For more on guardianship and conservatorship, click here.