July 01, 2021

Warren, Casey Urge HHS, DOJ to Provide More Data on Conservatorships and Guardianships Authorized by States

Britney Spears' Conservatorship Highlights Longstanding Gaps in the Nation's Guardianship System; Senators: "The lack of data to understand the gaps and abuses in the system also creates substantial opportunities for fraud and misappropriation of federal program dollars."

Letter Text (PDF)

WASHINGTON, D.C. - United States Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) sent a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland urging the federal government to improve oversight and provide more data on the nation's state-operated conservatorship and guardianship system. Troubling reporting on Britney Spears' conservatorship has highlighted longstanding gaps in the nation's guardianship system that can strip people of their basic rights and leave many people with disabilities, seniors, and other Americans vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Both HHS and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have previously stepped in to provide federal support for guardianship reforms and establish national reporting as it relates to older Americans, but the lack of federal data on the prevalence of conservatorships and guardianships of all kinds has made it difficult to enact policy changes, inform resource allocations, and protect at-risk citizens. 

"While guardians and conservators often serve selflessly and in the best interest of the person under guardianship, a lack of resources for court oversight and insufficient due process in guardianship proceedings can create significant opportunities for neglect, exploitation, and abuse.  Although guardianship decisions lie exclusively within the authority of state courts, they can also raise significant federal spending and policy interests, making it imperative that federal officials work collaboratively with state courts to identify gaps in our understanding of problems and develop solutions to address the problems with America's guardianship systems," wrote the senators.

Guardianship, also referred to as conservatorship, is a legal proceeding or relationship "created when a state court grants one person or entity the authority and responsibility to make decisions in the best interest of an incapacitated individual (...) concerning his or her person or property."  Guardians are often appointed to older adults and adults with mental, intellectual or developmental disabilities deemed unable to make their own decisions. The National Center for State Courts (NCSC) estimates that 1.3 million adults are currently living under guardianship or conservatorship, and their guardians control roughly $50 billion in assets. However, because of widespread variation in how states collect data related to these proceedings it is difficult for federal agencies and policymakers to understand the prevalence of guardianships and the gaps and abuses in the system, or establish protections for individuals. 

Warren and Casey are calling on HHS and DOJ to ensure there is a comprehensive national effort to collect demographic information related to guardianships, support individuals under guardianship and their guardians, and protect them from abuse and exploitation.