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

What Might Guardianship Reform Look Like?

Sienese Sculpture

 

What would a change in our guardianship law in Colorado mean?  Well, that depends! In my previous post about guardianship reform I looked at it in general as well as its application to Colorado.  In today’s post I’m asking some additional basic questions, which are aimed at making some fine-tuning adjustments where our present law doesn’t appear to suffer any major shortcomings.

How Can We Appropriately and Affordably Assess a Person’s Capacity?

Last month I attended a meeting of the UGCOPAA subcommittee of two Colorado Bar Association sections.   We are tasked with looking over the proposed uniform law’s provisions and we discussed some of the UGCOPPA’s provisions concerning the role of evaluations – like neuropsychological evaluations to assess a person’s functional capacities to perform different cognitive tasks of a person’s capacity.

How can we ensure that a capacity assessment is “good enough” for purposes of a court’s determination regarding whether a person is incapacitated or whether a person could benefit from assistance for particular tasks or function – something short of an unlimited guardianship and what will later be discussed as a kind of “other protective arrangement?

What Are the Implications for Going Beyond a “Physician’s Letter” that Are Currently Used to Support a Petition for Guardianship?

In Colorado, our law presently disfavors the imposition of plenary or unlimited guardianships over limited guardianships.  But – and this is a big caveat – the difficulty, particularly in addressing the circumstances of an elder with worsening dementia, is that it may sound like a good idea to have a limited guardianship but such arrangement may not be workable on a practical level because it might require the court to revisit the person’s needs as they increase and require more support from others which would not be contemplated in a limited guardianship.

Will the cost for getting a “good enough” evaluation make the proceedings too expensive?

The challenge here is how to make the laws accessible but still affordable for states with tight judicial resources. Easier said than done! I don’t think it would be a good idea to have a law which is an “unfunded mandate” in this context!

In case you’re wondering what is going on in the rest of the country regarding “guardianship reform,” there are some recently updated resources from the American Bar Association’s Commission on Aging.

Remember that the “guarding the guardians” theme is nothing new for guardianship legislation.  Over the years, studies have been performed to assess the effectiveness of monitoring and oversight by courts, as well as training and accountability for court appointed fiduciaries (including guardians).  There have been a number of national guardianship conferences (including those known as “Wingspan”) in which specific recommendations have been identified, which have included those concerning monitoring  by courts.

The National Center for State Courts also has a Center for Elders and the Courts webpage, which contains useful resources including an elder abuse toolkit and an elder abuse curriculum.  What we’re really talking about here in guardianship reform is about preventing elder abuse.  But it is complicated because the definitions concerning what constitutes elder abuse are inconsistent among states and federal law.  I do not want to diminish the importance of looking at reforms for state guardianship laws, but in my experience, the detection and reporting of elder abuse is a far more challenging and pervasive problem.  Ensuring that the civil rights of elders are protected requires us to look at the big picture in this regard, so that is what we are doing.  More on this topic next time….

© 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