State laws are designed to prevent predatory behavior.
It’s a nightmare scenario: A stranger knocks on the door and informs the resident, an elderly woman, that the court has appointed the visitor as her guardian.
The guardian tells the resident to pack her things immediately and whisks her off to an assisted living community. Family members try to step in, to no avail, as the guardian proceeds to sell the woman’s home and plunder her assets. And the most frightening part: It’s all legal.
That’s the opening scene of I Care a Lot, the Netflix movie starring Rosamund Pike, and shockingly, it mirrors the true story of a professional guardian named April Parks in Nevada. (The rest of the movie — involving Russian mobsters, a bag of stolen diamonds and multiple murders — is pure fiction.) Parks ripped off dozens of elderly people in Nevada; she’s now in prison.
If you saw the movie and you’re an older adult, you might wonder: Could this happen to me? If so, how can I protect myself?
First, some good news: Texas has protections in place that prevent the kind of predatory scenario that occurred in Nevada.
“That story is unrecognizable to those of us who practice guardianship in Texas,” says Terry W. Hammond, executive director of the Texas Guardianship Association, an organization of professional and family guardians. “Basic due process has been infused in the system in Texas. But that’s not to say the system is perfect. We still have some work to do to improve our guardianship process.”
Guardianship involves the legal process of removing the rights of a person who is incapacitated and can’t manage affairs because of illness, injury or disability. A guardian may be appointed by a court to manage the incapacitated person, the estate or both.
There are two types of guardians: a guardian of a person who makes medical, residential and similar decisions for that ward and a guardian of the estate who manages property on behalf of a ward.
“Getting guardianship is not an easy process in Texas,” says Hammond, an attorney. “Before an incapacitated person can be assigned a guardian, there must be a court hearing and medical evidence of incapacity. The person is served papers and is entitled to legal representation.” That process usually takes four to six months.
About 50,000 to 60,000 Texans, with estimated assets of $5 billion to $6 billion, are under guardianship in Texas.
Hammond estimates that 75% of those serving as guardians in Texas are family members. The other 25% are professional guardians, most of whom work for nonprofits.
The Senior Source, a nonprofit serving seniors in Dallas County, offers a guardianship program that assists people 50 and older who don’t have family to serve as a guardian or in cases when the court determines that a third party should be the guardian.
“Our program has five certified guardians who step in on behalf of the elderly person to make medical decisions and to apply for benefits [such as Medicaid, Medicare or veterans benefits] to cover the cost of long-term care at a nursing home or rehab facility,” says Meghan Hutchinson, director of the guardianship program at the Senior Source and president of the Texas Guardianship Association.
Short of incarceration or a mental health commitment, guardianship is the most restrictive legal status that can be imposed on a person. Usually it’s invoked to protect vulnerable elders and only as a last resort. For example, if a neighbor is stealing the Social Security checks of an elderly person with dementia or a family member is draining an incapacitated person’s bank accounts, the courts can appoint a guardian to intervene for someone who can’t advocate for himself.
To help prevent abuse and exploitation, the Texas Legislature enacted law in 2004 to license and train professionals who serve as guardians. But given the billions of dollars under the supervision of guardians, Hammond says, there should be more oversight.
Texans will find fairly good oversight in cities like Dallas and El Paso. But in rural counties, where the county judge may be part time and has no legal training, the resources for careful adjudication and oversight are often limited. The Texas Guardianship Association is advocating for the creation of specialized regional courts that are better equipped to adjudicate guardianship cases and oversee them. (At publication time, the Legislature was considering several possible measures, but nothing had been signed into law.)
By Mary Jacobs
9:31 AM on May 27, 2021
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