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In the hands of strangers: Guardianship disputes harm elders

It isn't uncommon for adult children or other relatives to dispute who knows (or wants) what's best for an elderly relative. When that happens, the elder in question can end up being the one harmed the most, and nobody may be happy with the results.

If family members can't agree on who should be an elder's guardian, the state can step in and appoint a total stranger to serve as the guardian, effectively shutting everyone out and leaving everyone without a voice about what will happen next -- including the elderly person involved.

Up until recently, there had been little oversight of court-appointed guardians, and critics say that the Pennsylvania system has been rife with abuses. The courts allow the guardians to charge pretty much whatever they please for duties related the elder's care, like scheduling a doctor's appointment.

In 2014, the Elder Law Task Force recommended the creation of a state Office of Elder Justice to protect seniors from exploitation by a for-profit guardianship system that often cuts family members out of the loop. Progress and changes have been slow to develop, however.

Disputes over guardianship can start suddenly and for seemingly little reason. For example, you may think that your mother may have become a little forgetful but is far from suffering the signs of dementia that make it unsafe for her to go to the grocery store alone. On the other hand, your brother may see your mother's forgetfulness as a glaring sign that she's no longer capable of making her own decisions. Or, maybe you both agree that your mother needs a guardian, but each of you want the position.

Sometimes family disputes can even turn angry, with one family member accusing others of wanting the position in order to bleed the elderly individual out of their life savings.

One thing that people can do to prevent ending up the human object of a tug-of-war game is to pre-plan for the possibility that they will eventually need a guardian. Pennsylvania law states that judges choosing a guardian should give preference, whenever appropriate, to the nominee of the incapacitated person.

Encourage your elderly relatives to make an appointment with an attorney to go over important documents like living wills, powers of attorney and guardianship preferences while they can still clearly and competently voice their opinions. That could end up saving everyone heartache later.

Source: Pennsylvania General Assembly, "Incapacitated Persons," accessed Dec. 01, 2016

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