How the elderly can protect their rights

More than 1.5 million American adults are under the care of guardians, who have broad jurisdiction to make financial and medical decisions on behalf of their wards. For the most part, guardians act responsibly. They are family members or professionals who, out of a sense of duty, care for individuals who are too vulnerable or ill to care for themselves.

However, a recent article in The New Yorker makes clear the dangers of the U.S. guardianship system. Simply put, individuals whose only motive is to make profits can establish themselves as guardians, and, with surprisingly little interference, take control of their wards’ assets and use them for personal gain.

To avoid such scenarios, individuals can work with an estate planning attorney to name their own guardians. (In legal parlance, this is called a conservatorship.) Failing to do so can be ruinous.

The pitfalls of guardianships

A study released by the American Bar Association notes that “an unknown number of adults languish under guardianship” and are often assigned guardians even when they don’t need them.

As detailed in The New Yorker, guardians themselves are becoming increasingly aggressive and predatory. They scout out senior citizens with a history of medical issues, and obtain court-sanctioned guardianship over them with surprising ease. They force such individuals out of their homes and into substandard assisted living facilities. They sell off assets and keep the proceeds for themselves. They prevent family members from interfering. And, as the guardians themselves are quick to point out, it’s all legal.

The accounts are harrowing. Because guardians do not need to announce their actions, “It often took several days for relatives to realize what had happened. When they tried to contest the guardianship or become guardians themselves, they were dismissed as unsuitable, and disparaged in court records.” These are narratives of broken families, cheated of assets and heirlooms, with little recourse for justice.

Establishing a conservatorship

It is impossible to predict the future. But it is possible to prepare for unpredictability. With this in mind, individuals can safeguard their estates by naming conservators – trusted parties – to manage their affairs in the event of an incapacitating illness or injury.

Protecting yourself in this way is a major step toward protecting your family.