February 24, 2019

Katie Ellington 
Ohio Center for Investigative Journalism 

Nevada addressed guardianship abuse after a fraud case drew national attention.

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CLEVELAND, Ohio – Ohio isn’t the only state concerned about vulnerable seniors.

Minnesota tackled financial elder abuse in 2012 by establishing a Conservator Account Auditing Program (CAAP).

It created an online system for uploading records of court-appointed conservators and hired a team of auditors to periodically review them. A related initiative is called the Conservator Account Review Program (CARP). According to Minnesota Judicial Branch Audit Manager Jamie Majerus, roughly 4,800 Minnesotans had assets under conservatorship in 2018 that were monitored by the programs. The value of these assets totalled $950 million.

In both programs, professionals supervised by certified fraud examiners oversee wards’ finances. CAAP audits all conservator-managed accounts after the first year and all accounts with assets exceeding $10,000 every four years. CARP routinely audits all conservator-managed accounts, regardless of size, and can refer those accounts to CAAP if it spots potential problems.

After the audit, judges get an account review report summarizing the auditor’s findings and recommendations. A similar document is provided to the judge before conservatorship hearings.

One expert calls it the model for an auditing system.

Nevada addressed guardianship abuse after a fraud case drew national attention.

Professional guardian April Parks used her court-appointed position to isolate and financially exploit more than 150 people in Las Vegas before she was caught. She got the maximum sentence of 16-40 years in prison after pleading guilty last November.

Nevada’s reform efforts since have made it a national example, said Rick Black, director of the Center for Estate Administration Reform.

In 2017, the Nevada Supreme Court created the Permanent Guardianship Commission, made up of judges, advocates and lawyers, to oversee and improve the state’s guardianship practices.

Wards must be present at a hearing, if physically able, and must have legal representation. A proposed ward can hire his or her own lawyer, but many are appointed by the court through legal aid centers.

“Now, protected persons and proposed protected persons have trained lawyers fighting for what they want, not what everyone thinks is in their best interest,” said Jim Berchtold, who leads the guardianship advocacy program at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.

Berchtold believes that a lawyer independent from the probate system can best serve wards as an impartial advocate. “Even if a protected person is unable to express his or her wishes, the mere presence of an attorney to represent them helps to ensure compliance with the statutes and dissuades financial exploitation and other abuses,” he said.

Nevada also created a Guardianship Compliance Office, which supports district probate courts by reviewing cases and performing investigations upon request. It can investigate the health and welfare of a protected person, locate guardians the court has lost contact with and run forensic audits if a judge is concerned about accounting for a ward’s assets.

“Before, the court didn’t have those resources to dig in and investigate,” said Guardianship Compliance Manager Kate McCloskey. “We have one district court that calls our audits ‘liquid gold.’”

Nevada’s Guardianship Complaince Office also operates a hotline for anyone who has questions about guardianship or needs help reporting guardianship abuse.

Berchtold and McCloskey said Nevada’s 2017 Protected Person’s Bill of Rights was another major step forward. It includes the right to be educated about guardianships, to participate in developing plans that will affect the ward’s future and to remain as independent as possible.

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series on guardianship for the Ohio Center for Investigative Journalism. The second installment will examine how Ohio courts and communities are collaborating to provide responsible guardianship in the face of ever-increasing demand.

This series of stories was funded by a grant from the Ohio News Media Foundation.