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 topics, issues that affect the lives of 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 that someone is “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 called 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 the whole process speeds up. Attorneys who do this work are easily found.
I also learned that 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 because a judge who initiates a guardianship rarely rules to undo their original judgment. And now it’s not just the elderly who are targets.
These days, younger people—those who received sizable workmen’s compensation settlements; those who’ve won multimillion dollar medical malpractice suits; veterans or the intellectually or physically disabled who receive generous monthly government checks—have fallen victim, in states across the country.
While some states have begun to adopt laws to reform guardianship, I believe this flawed system is the most crucial civil rights issue of our time. Millions of Americans are affected.
Oh, sometimes guardian/ward relationships work out well, especially if a loving relative or friend is appointed. But too often the court capriciously decides that no one in the family is fit to be the guardian, and an outside for-profit stranger is appointed. That person can hire as many others as they like to care for the “protected” person, and the ward’s estate pays all 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 that at any given time the collective amount of wards’ assets is at least $50 billion. With that much money available is it any wonder that such a legally sanctioned system would attract the criminal element? Informed critics estimate predatory players illegally divert multiple billions of dollars from this monstrous money cache every year.
Thanks to the very public 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 on it—pro and con. But wish me luck. I hope my upcoming book will enlighten readers and prompt serious new reform laws.
The guardianship system was designed to help the most helpless Americans. It’s time to either return to that mission or scrap the system altogether and come up with a new plan to help those who cannot fend for themselves.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.