Guardianship oversight in Texas needs to be strengthened

Imagine a family member or friend unable to make decisions about their healthcare, money, living situation and property. After a hearing, a court names you as the guardian, giving you the duty and power to make decisions on their behalf about money, property, living arrangements and medical decisions, among others.

You would have an awesome responsibility, and you would not be alone.

There are approximately 55,000 active guardianships in Texas today, with $5 billion in assets under the control of guardians and the courts. And the numbers are rising.

In the past five years, guardianships cases in Texas have risen by 66 percent. That’s just the beginning. The population of Texans age 65 and older is projected to double by 2030 to almost 6 million. According to the state demographer, our population age 85 and older will increase more than 500 percent between 2010 and 2050 — from 305,000 to 1.6 million.

The vast majority of guardians are selfless people who do very important work, often out of a sense of love, loyalty or duty. Their jobs aren’t easy. For example, in addition to keeping an eagle eye year-round on personal financial affairs, guardians are required by law to file annual reports of their charge’s well-being as well as an accounting of the financial transactions of the guardianship estate.

As with any other arrangement, not all guardians are fully up to the task, and worse, sometimes a guardian misuses or mismanages guardianship assets. To prevent such bad outcomes, the courts need adequate resources to monitor guardianship cases.

And that’s crux of the problem: There are too many guardianship cases throughout Texas today and not enough supervision. Specialized probate courts with trained monitoring staff are located in the largest metro areas, but many of the cases are not. As a matter of fact, about four of every 10 active guardianships in Texas are in counties with insufficient resources to monitor them.

Two years ago, the Texas Legislature set up a pilot program recommended by the Texas Judicial Council, the policymaking body of the judiciary, to improve compliance and to help courts protect the state’s most vulnerable citizens and their assets by reviewing adult guardianship cases, auditing annual accountings and reporting findings to the court.

In this year’s State of the Judiciary, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht noted that the pilot project has reviewed more than 10,000 cases in 18 courts and 11 counties. In almost half of the reviewed cases, guardians had not complied with the law and the courts did not have the resources to monitor the cases. The Texas Judicial Council, which Hecht chairs, is recommending that the compliance project be extended statewide.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed Senate Bill 667 to do just that, and Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo and chair of the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence, filed a companion, House Bill 3631. AARP fully supports their efforts, which would expand the pilot project throughout Texas, including hiring 28 new guardianship compliance specialists/auditors. The project would cost the state $3.2 million a year, a small investment in a high-quality program that oversees $5 billion of Texans’ assets. After stripping the funding for the pilot program from the introduced budget, the Texas Senate fully funded the program’s expansion in its version of the budget; the Texas House has yet to include funding for the program, but may consider it during budget deliberations.

Guardians are essentially financial caregivers. As with other caregivers, they play a critical role in our society, helping preserve individual assets and human dignity while saving taxpayers billions. Just recently, AARP partnered with Texas Appleseed to release five “Managing Someone Else’s Money” guides, a toolkit for financial caregivers in Texas who manage money or property for those unable to do so for themselves. This interactive series of guides, in English and Spanish, is available in print and online.

Texas needs a protective umbrella to ensure proper oversight of guardianships. Today, the system is overwhelmed and needs to be strengthened. SB 667 and HB 3631 would extend a lifeline to some of our most vulnerable citizens — at a very modest cost to our state.