Britney Spears has gained attention in her conservatorship case because she is a pop star, but usually it is an elderly grandma or grandpa who suffers from abuse in the system. This attention, fortunately, is bringing needed scrutiny to the crisis, which will hopefully bring relief to the elderly caught in the conservatorship trap as well.
As people learn more about this issue, it is important to understand the utter and total power that guardians, who oversee a ward’s health and welfare, and conservators, who oversee all of the ward’s financial assets, have over their wards. It is this level of control and a system that requires guardians and conservators to be paid out of the ward’s estate — while they are supposed to be protecting it — that creates the inherent conflict of interest at the center of this crisis.
It’s way overdue for urgent action by our national leaders to address it.
Just this week, a bipartisan bill was introduced designed to deliver common-sense solutions. The FREE Act will guarantee that wards are assigned a case worker and allow wards to petition the court to replace their court-appointed guardian with a public one. Both social workers and public guardians will also be required to disclose their financial records under the legislation to prevent conflicts of interest.
Lawmakers who have recently begun to take notice of conservatorship abuse are quickly learning that comprehensive data do not exist to guide their efforts. Recently, two Democrat senators sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice pressing for information from the federal bureaucracy. The FREE Act addresses this deficiency as well by requiring states to maintain an up-to-date database on people under conservatorships and guardianships.
With an estimated 1.3 million American adults currently under some form of conservatorship, and around $50 billion in assets at stake, it’s remarkable that we don’t have access to detailed information that might allow us to identify abuse cases. This deficiency exists despite the fact that conservatorship reform advocates have been trying for years to get some sort of national database established.
Interestingly, this issue seems like one of the very few these days capable of garnering bipartisan support. Republicans have become vocal about the need for reform too. Rep. Jim Jordan and others, for instance, have called on House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler to hold hearings soon.
Of course, the financial toll on victims is mind-bending. According to the American Bar Association, conservatorship abuse robs American seniors (and their families) of somewhere between $2.9 billion and $36.6 billion every year. That is a distressingly large range when lives are genuinely at stake. If we don’t even know whether we’re dealing with $2.9 billion in fraud or more than 10 times that amount, how can we possibly hope to protect the victims of that fraud?
So, while #FreeBritney is shining a spotlight on conservatorship abuse, there are countless people currently suffering at the hands of abusive guardians. These stories should also be told. In fact, entire websites have been dedicated to documenting their nightmares in conservatorship. In some cases, sons and daughters are prohibited from visiting their own parents in assisted living facilities. In other cases, court-appointed guardians charge exorbitant fees for mundane tasks such as opening the mail and paying routine bills, gradually depleting their ward’s assets until nothing is left to pass on to children and grandchildren.
And there are many targets of conservatorship who might not even be suffering mental decline and who must disprove questionable claims by professionals to protect their lives and assets against a system where the advantages — from the power of the courts to the discretion of guardians to the access of workers in assisted living centers — are stacked against them.
It should be clear to anyone with an ounce of compassion and a sense of justice that the status quo must be changed. Families across the country are crying out for help and they need elected officials to take a stand by making changes in the law and prosecuting those who have abused their wards and committed financial crimes.
It is a shame that it took one celebrity's story of abuse by conservators, one overseeing her body and one commanding her finances, to highlight many other stories of abuse of everyday people. Nonetheless, this empathy and anger for a single celebrity can now be directed towards positive change in America.
With the help of national leaders now investigating the issue, we must enact protections to prevent abuse by guardians and conservators for the elderly and others. If leaders step up now, there can be hope that this crisis will one day be solved.