Guardianship is a complex system, dating back to the Roman empire, in which a judge appoints someone (a guardian) to make decisions about the welfare and possibly the finances of a person deemed unable to manage those affairs. Terms vary, but in most states a guardian is appointed to manage and oversee the care of a person’s daily needs, and a conservator is appointed to oversee finances. More often than not, a judge appoints a family member to serve as a guardian. However, if no family member or friend is able to step in, the court may appoint a professional or public guardian.
You can count on AARP
A 2018 estimate put the number of adult guardianships in the U.S at 1.3 million, but legal experts say the exact figure is hard to pin down. Adults under guardianship may lose certain rights, including the right to vote and marry. Additionally, they also may lose the authority to make decisions about where to live, how to spend money and what medical treatment to receive. Thus, guardianship should be an option of last resort, and where appropriate the arrangement should include clear parameters and safeguards.
The majority of guardians — both family guardians and professional — do their jobs well. However, there have been instances of abuse, mismanagement of funds, lack of court oversight, conflicts of interest or a combination of these. Here’s one thing you can count on, though: AARP is playing a critical role in the fight to improve laws and enact reforms to protect vulnerable seniors who rely on legal guardians and others to help them make vital decisions.
AARP’s nearly decade-long advocacy has led to reforms that include establishing standards and training for guardians, safeguarding the rights of those under guardianship, strengthening court oversight of guardians and conservators and combatting abuse. Other reforms encourage judges to explore, when appropriate, less restrictive alternatives to guardianship. Such alternatives can include limited guardianships, powers of attorney, advance directives or supported decision-making agreements.
AARP advocacy yields wins
AARP, through its state offices, has supported additional advances such as:
- Florida’s law clarifying the duties of guardians and requiring court approval for a do-not-resuscitate order for a person under guardianship.
- Nevada’s creation of a state office for stronger oversight of guardians and a toll-free hotline, 833-421-7711, to report suspected wrongdoing.
- New Mexico’s in-depth examination of guardianships and recent requirement that prospective guardians undergo orientation.
- Colorado’s creation of a pilot program for public guardianship services for those in need of help who do not have family or friends able to serve as guardians.
- Texas’ distinction as the first state to recognize supported decision-making agreements as an alternative to guardianship. AARP worked with another nonprofit, Texas Appleseed, to create guides in English and Spanish to help family and friends serving as supporters understand their role under the law.
Of note is that several states have laws delineating the rights of individuals under guardianship, including Florida, Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, Texas, Nevada and South Carolina.
More work ahead
“AARP’s advocacy was a crucial component to the enactment of many new reforms across the country to update and strengthen outdated guardianship laws and standards,” says Diana Noel, senior legislative representative in government affairs at AARP. “While we have made great progress, there is still more to do, and we look forward to continuing our work on this important issue.”
Guardianship is a process that can vary from state to state, and sometimes from court to court. AARP recognizes that guardianship reform means more than updating state laws; it requires working with state courts and others in the community to improve the day-to-day practice of guardianship. That’s where Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders — or WINGS — come in. More than half the states have these or similar working groups. AARP is proud to have a seat at the table with these organizations, including Oregon WINGS, whose mission states: “By combining the efforts of all stakeholders, we can improve judicial processes, better protect individual rights, and promote fiduciary standards and guardian accountability.”
AARP shares those aims, which align perfectly with its bedrock principles: empowering people to choose how they live as they age and lead their best possible lives.