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Many With Guardians Have 'Britney Spears' Problems, Witnesses Tell Congress

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What You Need to Know

  • About 1.3 million U.S. adults are under guardianships or conservatorships.
  • Social Security has declined to honor state court orders related to guardians.
  • In some cases, Social Security lets guardians removed for fraud by state courts continue to administer benefits for a former ward.

A witness told members of Congress Tuesday that they should update the federal laws governing guardianships, to help state courts stop Social Security from sending benefits checks to bad guardians.

David Slayton, a Bellevue, Texas-based court consultant, said at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Constitution subcommittee that the Social Security Administration now declines to respect state court orders seeking information about guardianships.

In some cases, Slayton testified, the SSA’s refusal to share information means that it continues to pay benefits to a beneficiary’s “representative payee.” This happens even though a state has removed the representative payee from being the beneficiary’s guardian due to allegations of fraud or dereliction of responsibilities.

Slayton said Congress also should pass a law that will help states deal with bad guardians who cross state lines to keep hold of wards’ estates.

Guardianships are known as conservatorships in some states.

Cause Celebre?

The Senate Judiciary subcommittee organized the hearing in response to press reports about Britney Spears’ conflict with her father over his role as her conservator.

Morgan Whitlach, legal director of the Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities, cited National Council on Disability figures indicating that about 1.3 million U.S. adults have guardians or conservators.

In some cases, Whitlach said, guardians may interfere with the ability of those who have regained their mental capacity to use their bank accounts or personal identification cards or to get end-of-life care.

Whitlach called for a shift to more use of “supported decision-making,” or efforts to help wards understand issues well enough to make their own decisions.

Whitlach urged Congress to have the U.S. Department of Justice issue guidance stating that supported decision-making is a reasonable approach for a variety of institutions, including banks, to use.

When possible, states should provide supported decision-making help for people with dementia and memory loss, as well as for other people with disabilities, Whitlach said.

(Image: Shutterstock)