Legal Guardianship’s Meant to Help the Elderly – But Some Texans Are Abusing the System

A legal form of guardianship, used with elderly folks that don’t have a family advocate, has come under scrutiny after cases of abuse and financial mismanagement cropped up in Lubbock County.

By Alain Stephens & Hannah McBrideJune 27, 2016 12:34 pm,

As the population of Texas grows, so changes the demographics. According to the most recent data from the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, the state’s population of those age 60 and older is expected to triple by 2050.

Many of those people will require assistance to help manage their estates, with their legal and financial rights being handed to guardians. But while Texas’ rate of guardianship control increases – there are allegations that the state’s lack of oversight can make the system open to abuse, fraud, and misconduct.

Reporter Patrick Michels, who writes about guardianship in the July issue of the Texas Observer, says about 53,000 people are under a guardianship in Texas – as a sort of “last resort” if no family member steps forward to help someone take charge of their finances or make decisions, the court can appoint someone to do so for them.

“Sometimes that’s going against the person’s own wishes, but if the person is making bad decisions in the eyes of a judge,” he says, “then they can appoint someone else to do that. In rare cases, it can be a private, professional guardian – whose somebody appointed by the court who does these professionally.”

In the story, Michels says he chose to focus on Lubbock County because it has the highest rate of guardianship in the state and there were some high-profile, “notorious” abuse cases. He says he wanted to see what had happened after those abuse cases were resolved.

“After a period of brief activity to get a handle on their problem, they’re kind of back to where they were before,” he says. “In a lot of ways, it sheds a light on a problem the whole state has.”

That is, Michels says, that if a judge doesn’t want to award a guardianship to a family member, they have few options for professional guardians. Back in 2009, Lubbock County had, he says, basically one.

“He would charge an hourly rate, which would end up being pretty high,” he says, “He could get a cut of the money when he sold off someone’s house, sold off their stocks. Under the law, all that stuff is possible. But he was doing it without getting explicit permission from a judge.”

Once the state got rid of him as a professional guardian, Michels says, they didn’t have many alternatives.

“Almost all of those guardianships went to somebody who had just started up operating in that area,” Michels says, “which was his wife.”

Michels says the state has taken an interest in the past few years to provide oversight, with the state Office of Court Administration spearheading a “small-scale audit” of about 10 counties. “They’re just looking through the guardianship files… to get a handle on what’s going on because in so many counties the judges don’t have time to go over these files. They’re just sort of being created and forgotten about.”

The state plans to look through files in those counties by the end of the year, Michels says, to get a sense of how to handle any problems with guardianships before problems escalate.