In previous posts, we’ve discussed some of the pervasive issues surrounding nursing home abuse in the United States. However, there is another form of elder abuse that is less publicized: the financial exploitation of elderly people by their guardians.
Guardianship: holes in the system
When an elderly person begins to display signs of dementia, if the court deems them unable to make responsible decisions pertaining to their own health and property, then a guardian may take over these duties on the elderly person’s behalf. It may seem like a straightforward system designed to protect vulnerable adults. However, there are actually significant flaws in the system.
First, anyone is allowed to petition the court to appoint a guardian for another individual – regardless of their relationship to that individual. The determination of whether guardianship is necessary rests solely in the hands of a local judge – who may be an elected official who doesn’t have a legal background.
If the judge deems guardianship to be appropriate – and if there is no appropriate family member on deck to assume the responsibility – then they will appoint a professional guardian for the elderly person, known as a “ward.”
Vulnerability of wards
Once the court appoints a guardian, the ward loses a huge amount of their rights to a complete stranger. For instance, they can no longer vote or get married. The guardian also has access to all of their ward’s personal information – including healthcare records and bank accounts. The ward must also pay the guardian for their services. However, since the guardian controls the ward’s bank account, they have the freedom to charge whatever they want and withdraw the money themselves.
In Illinois – and in the vast majority of states in the country – there is no licensing requirement to be a professional guardian. Guardians are not even subject to a credit check. And there is no oversight to ensure that guardians charge their wards responsibly.
Not surprisingly, guardian exploitation of wards is a pervasive problem. There have been numerous documented cases of individuals who were ordered under the care of a guardian, even though they had no warranted disability. There are also hundreds of cases of guardians draining their wards’ bank accounts dry – leaving them financially ruined.
Although there is limited regulation for professional guardians, their behavior is nonetheless illegal. In a recent case in Nevada, a professional guardian faced more than 200 felony charges, including racketeering, theft and exploitation of elderly wards. She was found guilty and is now serving a 40-year prison sentence.
If you or someone you love has suffered from a professional guardian’s unethical behavior, you have recourse. It’s worthwhile to consult with an attorney experienced in elder abuse to learn about your options.