Protecting seniors from guardianship fraud and abuse

In Florida, seniors are valuable members of our communities. Having chosen our beautiful state to live out their golden years, they expect peace, relaxation, and sunshine. But what is supposed to be a reward for a lifetime of hard work can quickly become a nightmare if they become victim to guardianship abuse.

Legitimate guardianships are established by state courts when it is determined that an individual is unable to attend to their financial and personal affairs. The appointed guardian is given vast control over the individual under their care, including power of attorney, control over their bank accounts, property, and assets, and the ability to make medical decisions. Unfortunately, these wide-ranging responsibilities leave room for bad actors to take advantage of those under their care — lining their pockets with the assets they were tasked with administering.

Like sharks hunting prey, unscrupulous guardians are on the hunt for vulnerable seniors to isolate, abuse, and defraud. What makes this problem especially difficult to solve is the lack of oversight, transparency, and accountability within state-administered guardianship systems. For example, we don’t even know how many Americans are under guardianship, deprived of their personhood or their ability to make critical decisions for themselves.

It is common practice for an individual who is appointed as a guardian for a senior or person with a disability by a state court to also be appointed as a representative payee by the Social Security Administration (SSA). That means the guardian receives and manages the Social Security benefits of the person they’ve been tasked to care for.

Unfortunately, state courts and SSA aren’t always talking to each other. If a court removes a guardian for abuse, fraud, or neglect, that guardian could still receive those Social Security checks in perpetuity. This is where the Senior Guardianship Social Security Protection Act comes in.

This legislation would direct state courts to notify Social Security if a guardian has been removed for cause, giving SSA the ability to remove the former guardian as representative payee. If there is one thing I have learned in my time in Congress, it’s that agencies work best when they are talking to one another. If you are not suitable to serve as an individual’s guardian, you aren’t suitable to collect their Social Security benefits either. That’s just common sense!

The bill also directs the SSA to report to Congress biannually on the number of Social Security payments being diverted to non-family representative payees, so that we can finally begin to determine how many Americans are actually under guardianship.

To further address guardianship fraud, I have also introduced two bipartisan bills with Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) — the Freedom and Right to Emancipate from Exploitation (FREE) Act to give those under guardianship an escape hatch from abusive private guardians, as well as the Guardians Aren’t Above Prosecution (GAAP) Act to clarify that fraud commissioned under a guardianship is still fraud punishable by law. Additionally, I co-introduced the bipartisan Guardianship Accountability Act along with Reps. Darren Soto (D-Fla.), Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.), and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) to implement further oversight and data collection of the guardianship system.

An unaccountable, opaque system that allows a fraudster to essentially imprison a human being with an ongoing stream of revenue — be it a Social Security check or in Britney Spears’ case, global record sales and tours — invites corruption of the worst order and demands reform. This suite of bills is an important start to protect seniors, persons with disabilities, and anyone else who finds themselves trapped by abusive guardians or conservators.

Charlie Crist represents Florida’s 13th District.

Tags Britney Spears Charlie Crist conservators Conservatorship Darren Soto Debbie Dingell guardianship abuse guardianships Nancy Mace

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