Texas needs to patch holes in guardianship safety net

Published 10:03 am Saturday, February 9, 2019

By Bob Jackson and Nathan Hecht

If a manufacturer produces a defective product four out of every 10 times, that company would likely be headed for big trouble. In Texas, something even more serious is happening with the nearly $5 billion in assets of vulnerable Texans held by court-appointed guardians.

A review of nearly 30,000 guardianship files by Texas’ Guardianship Compliance Program found 41 percent of the cases were out of compliance. In one particularly egregious case, the whereabouts of a person needing help was unknown for years. In another, no reports or accounts were ever filed for a $4 million estate. And in thousands of other cases, records of deceased persons have remained under the control of the courts.

The rapid rise of Texas’ population of older persons makes solving these issues a pressing matter: The number of Texans age 65+ is projected to double by 2030, to almost 6 million. Guardianships are designed to provide a safety net for Texans vulnerable to exploitation. The vast majority of these people are older and often have health issues that require someone to help manage some or all of their daily affairs.

There are solutions. Already, Texas has enacted strong guardianship reforms that have been recognized by the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging as a national model. Last session, the Texas Legislature passed new laws increasing guardianship training and certification for attorneys and guardians and implementing a statewide guardianship registration, as well as enhanced criminal history checks on proposed guardians.

But data show that most Texas courts, especially in rural areas, still lack necessary resources to effectively oversee guardianships. There aren’t enough providers of proper oversight and protection for vulnerable older Texans.  With thousands of cases out of compliance, too many Texans remain at risk.

State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, has introduced Senate Bill 31 to expand the Guardianship Compliance Program statewide and provide necessary resources to strengthen the audit and review process. Also, the Legislature is considering the appropriation of funds to make this program operational. This bill and funding request are absolutely vital for the well-being of thousands of vulnerable Texans. It’s crucial that these measures be adopted and signed by the governor.

There are approximately 55,000 active guardianships in Texas today. The vast majority of guardians are devoted people who do very important work, often out of a sense of love, loyalty or duty. Theirs is not an easy job. We need to support this work with adequate supervision while also keeping a watchful eye on those who are failing to meet their duties and placing many of our fellow Texans at risk.

There is no time like the present to patch the holes in our guardianship safety net and keep Texas as a national leader in guardianship reform.

By Bob Jackson, director of AARP Texas, and Nathan Hecht, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas