May is National Elder Law Month!

Italian Door

Did you know that the first recognition of this month was in 1963, when President Kennedy declared it to be Senior Citizens Month to honor those 65 and older?

I am observing it in my way by continuing to post about topics relevant to elders and the rest of us who aspire to become “senior citizens” …  Today’s post is another in my series on guardianship reform.

I recently read a new publication by Thomas Lee Wright, The Family Guide to Preventing Elder Abuse (2017: Skyhorse Publications). Wright also produced Edith and Eddie,” the 2018 documentary short Oscar nominee, which you can watch here.  I watched this poignant short film about a newly married nonagenarian couple.  There were many things in the short that were left out of the film which concerned Edith’s dementia.  The film could have gone into detail about the legal wranglings relating to Edith’s guardianship, but it didn’t.  To my mind, the beauty of the story was its simplicity: their love for each other.  I don’t want to give a spoiler alert concerning the sad ending, suffice it to say it had to do with Edith’s guardian’s decision-making authority.

Back to the book.  Many aspects of Wright’s book I found to be informative and helpful, but one of the shortcomings I sometimes find about books of this nature which originate from an author’s personal experience, is that its scope tends to be narrow and somewhat reactive to the situation with which the author unfortunately was made familiar.  I did like that many of the chapters are written by others with expertise in the field about which they write and provide different perspectives.

Are the Probate Attorneys and the Guardians of Incapacitated Elder Adults Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem?

As an attorney representing clients involved in protective proceedings or related matters, I work in an imperfect system.  Sometimes I struggle to explain to clients why things work the way they do.   Sometimes they ask me why it is so hard, why it has to be so difficult to take care of a parent.  My answer is always the same: if it were easy to do the right thing, we would live in a vastly different world. There is no black/white or right/wrong in our legal system, even fewer in probate matters as there are many perspectives and viewpoints of someone’s “best interests” in probate court.  A colleague once referred to it as “like a divorce except with five people involved.”  It is in this sense a branch of domestic relations court.

Why is this observation important? Each of us – attorney, client, as well as the other involved in proceedings (and there can be a rather large cast of characters) always need to keep in perspective that we have our own perception of what is happening and why, our own beliefs about what is in another’s best interest, and our probate court system tries to account for these things while respecting due process rights of the elder involved who is not able to make or communicate important decisions relating to the court proceedings.

But I digress, so back to the book… of interest to me were chapters 7 “Working with Professionals” (doctors and lawyers) and chapter 8 “Abusive Guardianships.”  Chapter seven addresses how to work with doctors and lawyers.  Many of my clients with whom I work have not previously hired an attorney.  There are many things to consider in hiring a lawyer in the elder law context, but I think the most important considerations are working with someone you feel you can trust, he uses clear and effective communication skills and answers your questions and provides guidance.

As for chapter eight, I found the co-authors’ very brief “history” of guardianship law to be not helpful and its broad statement concerning the standard of proof in guardianship proceedings is misleading and could easily have been corrected with fact checking.  In Colorado, the standard of proof for establishing a conservatorship is a preponderance of the evidence, while for a guardianship the standard is clear and convincing evidence.  There is no “one size fits all” preponderance of the evidence burden of proof in civil proceedings.

I also found their use of the term “predatory attorneys and guardians” to be vague and misleading.  I was not sure whether the term was used to refer to professional guardians and there were few details to flesh out the use of these terms.  As an attorney in Colorado, I can say that in a Petition for Guardianship or Conservatorship, I must alert the court as to the existence of a medical or general (financial) power of attorney and will typically explain in the Petition why the agent is unable to perform their duties as anticipated.  The advance planning in the form of POAs is not just summarily chucked out the window!

Advance planning does not work 100% of the time.  Complications can arise when an agent is no longer willing to perform because the job is too difficult.  In my practice this typically takes place because of family dynamics and as a result of sibling relationships becoming more fractured and hostile due to an elder parent’s cognitive decline or incapacity.  Sadly, some children readily take advantage of the situation, sometimes out of a sense of entitlement, that the parent “owes” them, or because they have nurtured a lifelong grudge against the sibling who is selected as the parent’s agent.  Sometimes it’s one child with a “misery loves company” modus operandi, these folks are very troubling to their unwitting parent and the adult child the parent has named to assist the parent as agent.

By the time an adult enters the probate court proceedings as a “respondent” named in a Petition for Guardianship or Conservatorship, the elder parent may be in the final stages of advanced dementia and barely rooted in time and place. Court appointed counsel, known as “Respondent’s counsel” may or may not be able to adequately represent the Respondent’s legal interests due to communication difficulties and a court may find it necessary to appoint a Guardian ad Litem to represent the Respondent’s best interests.

No Respondent Goes Willingly to the Hearing on a Petition for Guardianship!

I have yet to hear an elder respondent state, “why yes, your honor, I have really been slipping cognitively and need the court to appoint someone to take care of everything and make decisions for me.”  The cognitive impairment of an elder is often barely noticeable because it tends to happen over time, often gradually.  Some elders refuse to go to a doctor because they suspect they will get a dreaded diagnosis they don’t want.  I sometimes refer to Alzheimer’s as a contagious disease because it often happens that the denial that something is terribly wrong is shared with a spouse, adult child and sometimes others close to the elder with cognitive impairment that puts them at risk to financial predators.  Couple this with the fact that there is no medication to slow the decline or reverse the losses and the result often means waiting until a catastrophe has taken place.  Maybe mom gave away $30,000 of her $60,000 life savings to one of her kids or to a neighbor or to purchase lottery tickets.

There is neither a simple nor an easy solution to this challenge to our legal system.  It will only become bigger and more complicated as the numbers of old and cognitively impaired baby boomers rise and their often fractured family relationships contribute to the dysfunction.

In the next post on this topic I will look at standards for appointing a guardian or conservator as well as the oversight by the court system of these proceedings, which can cover a long span of years.

© 2018 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org

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

Is Guardianship Reform Coming to Colorado?

One Stone of an Ancient Ring

I’m beginning a series of posts about guardianship reform and its relationship to elder abuse.

What is known as “guardianship reform” is a very hot topic these days.

On the local level, I noticed that a candidate for a Littleton City Council seat made a critical reference to the powers of the Adult Protective Services system to investigate the welfare of a local resident (who apparently has dementia) living in her own home.  In the national press, guardianship reform has received lots of attention.  For Colorado, we have had versions of the Uniform Law Commission’s Uniform Guardianship and Protective Proceedings in our probate code for quite some time.  You can review the User’s Manuals for Guardians and for Conservators in Colorado here.

The Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship and Other Protective Arrangements Act

But there is a newer 2017 version of a uniform law which the Uniform Law Commissioners have prepared for adoption by the states.  It is known as the Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship, and Other Protective Arrangements Act, or UGCOPAA.  You can read more about it here.  A sub-committee of the Trusts & Estates and Elder Law Sections of the Colorado Bar Association is presently reviewing its provisions to examine how its provisions would impact existing Colorado law (our code and case law pertaining to its provisions).  More about that later!

This post is the introduction to the series and so I ask the basic question:

What does guardianship reform have to do with elder abuse prevention?

Apparently, plenty!  Particularly if you happen to be the child of a celebrity whose stepmother acted as your father’s guardian and limited or prevented you from visiting your parent during the end of his life and while he was suffering from dementia. The connection came to me the other day in the form of a Google alert.  It cited to a recent article about Casey Kasem’s daughter Kerri, who had a dispute with Kasem’s wife about his care while suffering from Lewy body dementia as well as the disposition of his last remains.  Glen Campbell’s children also had difficulties with their stepmother and their effort resulted in a Tennessee law that will “protect elderly.”  This LA Times article is about Kerri Kasem teaming up with Catherine Falk to advocate for more restrictions on a guardian’s authority which would allow more family members and others the right to visit a person under a guardianship.

In coming posts, I will explore topics including:

  • The importance of making your fiduciary/care wishes known If you are part of a dysfunctional family;
  • Who and what are fiduciaries in the elder law and probate context and why have they become so controversial?
  • What are unlimited guardianships, limited guardianships and “other protective arrangements;”

As well as other topics that arise in this context.  So please stay tuned!

© 2017 Barbara Cashman  www.DenverElderLaw.org