A Brief Look at the Thinking Behind Guardianship Reform

Help with wings

Those of us who practice in the field of conservatorships and guardianships (this is Colorado terminology; their precise titles vary from state to state) are now struggling to make sense of the many proposed changes put forward by critics.  I am primarily concerned with the proposed legislation from the Uniform Law Commissioners known as the Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship and Other Protective Arrangements Act (UGCOPAA).  This proposed legislation has been hailed as a modern update to guardianship and conservatorship law.  Where Colorado (in contrast to many other states) has long established uniform guardianship and conservatorship legislations, along with periodic updates, the new uniform legislation is basically “Guardianship 2.0” in that it represents a major and systematic update and overhaul.  The American Bar Association has a good overview of the proposed uniform legislation here.

The Challenges of Reforming Different Systems Among the States

Nationwide, there are many groups and individuals behind efforts to reform guardianship (as the term will be used collectively to refer to both types of legal proceedings).  The different groups have different criticisms and there is no shortage of horror stories about how these “protective proceedings” have gone wrong for many people.  While many people would like to have more uniformity and oversight imposed on the state systems of probate courts, the federal government is neither equipped nor inclined to act as overseer here.  The lack of resources for the much-hailed Elder Justice Act is an example of this unfunded mandate.

There Are At Least Two Different Populations of Vulnerable Persons

Guardianship reform efforts are aimed to assist those identified as the most vulnerable segments of our population: the disabled community (with organizations like The Arc and legal protections like the ADA), along with elder adults with declining cognitive capacity.  This latter population will continue to grow.  The numbers of elders with severe cognitive impairment grows with the numbers of elders, and the Alzheimer’s Association has dubbed my generation of baby boomers “generation Alzheimer’s.”    To my mind, there are two very different “camps” of persons in this proposed legislation.  Suffice it to say that the two segments are generally included as a group together because of the overlapping needs for respect for their rights to dignity and self-determination.

My central concern with the proposed legislation is the point where the two groups interests and needs for protection diverge.  Keep in mind they are very different populations.  I’m using a broad brush here, but we’re talking about needs and protections of a developmentally disabled adult who may be relatively high functioning in some aspects of living and need substantial assistance in others.  They may be able to live independently with assistance.  Contrast this with the large numbers of elder adults who, as a direct result of our unprecedented longevity, have amassed resources, established relationships and lived their own lives prior to succumbing to dementia.  When does one lose the ability to manage one’s own affairs?  That simple question has no simple or easy answer!

Among those who call for guardianship reform in the context of elders, there are a couple groups, those associated with celebrity children of fathers who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease.  These daughters were not allowed sufficient visitation with their fathers due to restraints placed on such visits by their stepmothers, specifically Kasem Cares and the Catherine Falk Organization, who have zeroed in on a right to association as part of guardianship reform.

The Guardianship Reform Movement Is a Diverse Group with Many Diverse Interests Represented

Suffice it to say that some of the diverse interests conflict with each other.  Many of the calls for guardianship reform are in response to the inherent failings of a particular state’s system of oversight.  Nevada’s system in Clark County was the subject of Rachel Aviv’s New Yorker article “The Takeover,” and it documented in horrifying detail how elders were systematically stripped of their civil rights as well as their property, with hardly a nod in the court system to any due process rights.

That reform is needed is not the issue, but the where, how, why and what of that reform should be examined closely, instead of trying to overlay a “fix” for a problem which may not exist or by creating new problems by reforming a system in its entirely when there were parts of it that were working fairly well.  If you take a poll of attorneys in this field, you would be hard pressed to find people who don’t have concerns about how our system works and most of us could list an array of its shortcomings.  Does this mean the system is broken? I don’t think so. Does it need improvement? Yes.  Our legal system is a functioning part of our government that must respond to the diverse array of interests, pressures and fiscal priorities and realities.

What I find disturbing about all of this is the clamor to “fix” a broken “system” – as if all we needed to do was pass some new legislation that would magically transform the adult protective proceedings system into a streamlined, dignity-honoring and civil rights protecting regime. In our obsession to fix a problem and then move on to the next thing, we overlook the opportunity for thoughtful change and typically neglect the big picture of looking at the entire system – both the working and the failing parts, with an eye to improving particular outcomes.  This takes longer obviously, but avoids the throwing the baby out with the bathwater approach.

Next time, I will look more deeply into the criticisms levelled at attorneys and fiduciaries working in the field of conservatorships and guardianships.

© 2018 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Does Guardianship Law Need Reform in Colorado?

guardianship reform

At the Threshold

This may seem like a pretty basic and simple question, maybe too simple for some – but it lies at the heart of a debate currently raging in many parts of our country.  A couple axioms come to mind here – first: “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater;” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  I don’t want to appear trite here, but we do first need to identify and distinguish the baby from the bathwater so to speak, as well as identify the system (which is imperfect as all systems are) and/or its parts which may be working as anticipated or which are in fact broken.

So what is it that people mean by “guardianship reform?”

Well, it depends on who you ask! I like this definition of law reform:

Law reform is the process of analyzing current laws and advocating and carrying out changes in a legal system, usually with the aim of enhancing justice or efficiency. By promoting and executing changes in a legal system, individuals and groups can implement changes in a given society. Law reform can be achieved through litigation, legislation, or regulatory change, and often requires the collaboration of a variety of groups in different practice settings. Law reform may also be defensive – stopping changes in existing law through litigation or legislative advocacy.

Here is an explanation on the need for guardianship reform as explained by the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), of which I am a longtime member:

Guardianship is an ancient legal device dating back to early Greece and the Roman Empire.  It protects at-risk individuals and provides for their needs.  At the same time, because it removes fundamental rights, it should be considered a last resort when no appropriate less restrictive alternatives are available. With the aging of the population and rising numbers of persons with mental disabilities, adult guardianship has received increased scrutiny in the last 25 years.  The history of guardianship reform shows a marked advance in law but uneven implementation in practice. Guardianship reform laws have focused on five related areas:

  • Stronger procedural due process protections in the appointment process;

  • Changes in duties and powers of guardians, and provisions for limited guardianship orders;

  • Guardian accountability and court monitoring; and

  • Public and agency guardianship.

With the “silver tsunami” of aging baby boomers, there can be no doubt that more attention and resources are needed to address this challenge for each state and the federal government (which has its own system for its programs) of crafting a workable and cost-effective legal framework which honors human dignity, protects fundamental rights of elder disabled or incapacitated persons, provides accountability of court-appointed fiduciaries (guardians and conservators) and honors other important values.

Is Guardianship Usually Considered a “Last Resort?”

As an attorney practicing in this field and appearing regularly in probate courts, I can say that under our statutory framework (the Colorado Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Act or “CUGPPA”), as evidenced by the Colorado State Judicial Department’s proscribed form for a Petition for Guardianship, as consistent with applicable case law, and as a result of certain judicial officers questions posed to counsel and interested parties to a protective proceeding – the imposition of a guardianship is a last resort.

When I counsel clients for estate planning and we discuss the importance of durable powers of attorney, I stress the importance of choosing the right person to serve as agent.  I also state that in nearly all cases, the powers of attorney will work as intended if the need for them arises – but I also caution clients that while a guardianship or conservatorship may be the “nuclear option” in many scenarios, it is sometimes the only effective means to protect a vulnerable adult from the influence of or exploitation by another.  Sometimes I have had to explain in court documents or to an inquiring judicial officer why the power of attorney is not working as intended.  These types of situations can be quite complicated and usually involve some family dysfunction that is expressed as one person’s (often an adult child of an elder) need to try to control a situation or the actions of or access to an elder parent.

Notwithstanding these considerations, once a determination is made that an elder adult is incapacitated and in need of protection, there is supposed to be a range of alternatives which a court can order, ranging from a limited guardianship to an unlimited or “plenary” guardianship.

But a limited guardianship is generally considered unworkable because of the myriad challenges to and difficulties of monitoring a limited guardian’s exercise of authority.

As for the unlimited or plenary guardianship, I would say that this has become the “default” type of guardianship imposed.  This is where my concern about civil rights for elders resonates and why I am looking closely at the new legislation put forward by the Uniform Law Commission (the Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship, and other Protective Arrangements Act or “UGCOPAA”)  for adoption by the states.  The National Center on Elder Abuse has a helpful document which summarizes the goals of the new model legislation.  The American Bar Association urges support of the UGCOPAA for its provisions regarding “supported decision making” as a less restrictive alternative to imposition of a guardianship.

What Do Abuses Have to Do With the Need for Systemic Reform?

My question here is again a basic one.  There can be no doubt that the incidences of overreaching or financial abuse by court-appointed guardians must be remedied, particularly where a state court’s system allowed for such abuse to take place because of the lack of systemic protections of elders’ civil rights including due process.  One of the most infamous examples of this was described in The New Yorker article “The Takeover,” written by Rachel Aviv, a chilling true story which recounts in detail what happened to an elderly couple (and several other elders) in Las Vegas, Nevada and how their daughter was powerless to protect her parents.

I have had a couple clients ask me whether that Las Vegas-style abuse could happen here in Colorado.  I believe it could not happen here, but I remain concerned about the protection of elders’ civil rights.  Remember that the guardianship proceeding is essentially an extinguishment of an elder’s civil rights!

But there is a separate consequence at issue here – once a guardian or conservator is appointed by a court, there remains the issue of court oversight of the appointed fiduciary and this is another place where things can get difficult.  Here’s a link to a recent NY Times article which contains some alarming statistics about the amount of money that has gone missing in reported cases of guardians stealing from their wards.  In each judicial district, Colorado maintains a probate monitor whose job it is to ensure that guardians and conservators (particularly the latter as they manage finances for a protected person or ward) provide the necessary information for filing the required reports.  The Colorado state judicial branch monitors probate cases in other ways as well.

In my next post in this series, I will examine some of the abuses which have been uncovered and publicized and put forward as compelling reasons for guardianship reform.  I wish everyone a happy new year!

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

Guardianship of an Elder – Some Important Considerations

Delicate Flower

Delicate Flower

As the number of retirement age baby boomers continues to rise, we continue to grow our unprecedented proportion of old people in our population.  What does this mean for our future?  Well, lots of different things, but I’m focusing on an often neglected side-effect of our longevity: the likelihood of incapacity.

Capacity itself is a broad topic in the law.  In my area of practice – we typically follow the question whether someone has (or had) capacity with the focusing query – capacity to do what?  Execute a power of attorney, sign a will, direct one’s medical care?  Here’s a link to a document from the American Geriatrics Society about medical capacity that is an excellent Q&A on the topic of capacity in the medical decision-making context.

There are often many ways to enhance someone’s capacity if they are facing cognitive challenges.  Some of these enhancements can assist greatly where the deficit in capacity is of a more temporary nature, such as confusion.  Confusion can have a wide array of sources including alcohol or substance intoxication; poor heart or lung function (resulting in e.g., hypoxia); malnutrition or dehydration; blood sugar too low or too high; medications not managed effectively or withdrawal of medication; head injury or other bodily trauma; infection. Insomnia; and a number of other diseases and conditions.  I mention these to contrast them with a kind of capacity that is typically not temporary and likely to diminish further as the underlying disease progresses or as the condition worsens.  The kind of incapacity I am considering is not the temporary or reversible kind.

There are a number of medical conditions or diseases which can affect capacity as well.  For example, there are several types of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, alcoholic dementia, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia (Pick’s disease is one example) and Diffuse Lewy Body dementia which can occur with Parkinson’s disease.  For our purposes in Colorado, one relevant statutory reference is to C.R.S. 15-14-102(5), which concerns the definitions for protective proceedings:

“Incapacitated person” means an individual other than a minor, who is unable to effectively receive or evaluate information or both or make or communicate decisions to such an extent that the individual lacks the ability to satisfy essential requirements for physical health, safety, or self-care, even with appropriate and reasonably available technological assistance.

In the context of the medical conditions and diseases which cause dementia, a major goal of a capacity determination is to not just identify the disease, condition or injury which is the cause of the ongoing dementia (and which often progressively worsens over time), but to identify and promote the AIP’s self-determination and other rights to the extent possible.  Planning for the future can typically be accomplished even after a diagnosis or dementia such as Alzheimer’s.  The Alzheimer’s Association has a helpful brochure here.

While a person with dementia faces a host of challenges to their autonomy and self-management of activities of daily living (ADL), appointment of a guardian for an alleged incapacitated person need not necessarily be a self-fulfilling prophecy in that taking the AIP’s rights away makes them less competent.

Here is a link to the Colorado Judicial Branch’s website which contains helpful information about adult guardianship in Colorado and the probate court process known as “protective proceedings.”   The Guardianship Alliance of Colorado also has helpful resources, particularly pertaining to the expectations and duties of a guardian for an adult.  Finally, here’s a link to the 2016 Senior Law Handbook, published by the Colorado Bar Association.  Chapter 26 is devoted to guardianship of adults.

So what is the overall nature of an adult guardianship proceeding?  It is called a protective proceeding because its underlying aim is to protect the well-being of vulnerable adults.  This protection comes at a steep price however, the near complete stripping of civil rights of the AIP.  The ward will retain the right to vote, however.  So what is the task of a petitioner (the person seeking a guardianship) and what is the court’s role?  Within the context of protecting a vulnerable individual and based on all the cognitive and other deficits which prevent the person from functioning at an autonomous level, there are many losses sustained.  Amidst these losses, however, is the person’s ongoing right to self-determination.  Self-determination is an ancient right as far as the law goes, part of the inviolable rights which set apart humankind from other beings in the animal kingdom.

Self-determination is something not often discussed except in the most desperate of circumstances, hence its relevance to this discussion.  A basic precept of international human rights law (particularly in the post-colonial era), in our country’s history, it has been relevant to American Indian peoples, the disabled and other marginalized groups in our legal history and is enshrined in many countries’ constitutions.

In the future, I will be taking a further look at how the self-determination of a ward (after judicial determination of incapacity) can be supported by a guardian.

© 2016 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org