Elder Law

Does adult guardianship system exploit the elderly? This woman paid about $300K in expenses

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A Vancouver, Washington, woman’s 30-month trip through the guardianship system shows how costly the process can be.

Linda McDowell, 71, was informed in March 2012 that a temporary guardian had been appointed to represent her after her former housemate became concerned about her behavior. By the time a judge freed her from guardianship 30 months later, McDowell had paid about $300,000 in expenses, the Wall Street Journal reports in a story summarized at the Wall Street Journal Law Blog.

A guardian billed McDowell $332.50 to take her to breakfast, $95 for a visit on her birthday, and $47.50 for a Thanksgiving phone call, the story reports. A second guardian billed McDowell thousands of dollars for tasks that included mail processing, personal visits and “marshaling assets.”

A lawyer for both guardians tells the Wall Street Journal that McDowell lost some assets because they were jointly owned with the former housemate and divided in the separation. Money was spent for meetings to discuss the separation and safeguard McDowell’s assets, the lawyer said.

McDowell got the guardianship lifted with the help of a pro bono lawyer. McDowell now lives in a motor home with her dog, Sam, getting by on Social Security and annuity payments.

According to the story, “guardianship systems across the country are plagued by allegations of financial exploitation and abuse, despite waves of overhaul efforts. As a result, critics say, many elderly people with significant assets become ensnared in a system that seems mainly to succeed at generating billings.”

Many states are addressing abuses with new laws, the story says, citing information from the American Bar Association. Many states now require criminal and financial background checks of potential guardians, and require guardians to post bonds ensuring the protection of assets.

Florida now requires suspected exploitation or abuse by a guardian to be reported to a state hotline. In Texas, lawmakers passed what may be a first-of-a-kind law that allows “supported decision-making” as an alternative to guardianship. The law authorizes voluntary agreements in which designated people help with decisions on finances and other issues.

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