About the GAO:
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. Often called the “congressional watchdog,” GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars.
Our Mission is to support the Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and to help improve the performance and ensure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people. We provide Congress with timely information that is objective, fact-based, nonpartisan, non-ideological, fair, and balanced.
Our Core Values of accountability, integrity, and reliability are reflected in all of the work we do. We operate under strict professional standards of review and referencing; all facts and analyses in our work are thoroughly checked for accuracy.
Our Work is done at the request of congressional committees or subcommittees or is mandated by public laws or committee reports. We also undertake research under the authority of the Comptroller General. We support congressional oversight by
auditing agency operations to determine whether federal funds are being spent efficiently and effectively;
investigating allegations of illegal and improper activities;
reporting on how well government programs and policies are meeting their objectives;
performing policy analyses and outlining options for congressional consideration; and
issuing legal decisions and opinions, such as bid protest rulings and reports on agency rules.
We advise Congress and the heads of executive agencies about ways to make government more efficient, effective, ethical, equitable and responsive.
Our work leads to laws and acts that improve government operations, saving the government and taxpayers billions of dollars.
“Elder Justice: National Strategy Needed to Combat Elder Financial Exploitation”
There are limited safeguards to protect older adults from abuse by guardians, who are granted authority by a state court to make decisions in the best interest of an incapacitated individual concerning his or her person or property. While guardians can play a key role in managing the assets of these older adults, we have noted in past reports that guardians are only subject to limited safeguards that could protect these older adults from financial exploitation. For example, local officials in California noted that it can be hard to determine whether a person applying to be a guardian is doing so to further his ward’s best interests. We have also reported that few states conduct criminal background checks on potential guardians. Moreover, we have noted concerns with weak court oversight of appointed guardians, as well as poor communication between the courts and federal agencies that have enabled guardians to chronically abuse their wards and/or others.
“VA’s Fiduciary Program: Improved Compliance and Safeguards Could Better Safeguard Veteran’s Benefits”
VA’s Fiduciary Program has policies in place that are intended to ensure that qualified fiduciaries are selected and regularly monitored; however, insufficient staff compliance with some policies and weaknesses in others hinder VA’s ability to safeguard veterans’ benefits. For example, VA was late in conducting required follow-up visits to monitor fiduciaries or provided insufficient documentation to show whether these visits were conducted in about 18 percent of the cases GAO reviewed. In addition, while GAO estimated that nearly 40 percent of fiduciaries who were required to submit financial reports to demonstrate how beneficiary funds are managed turned their reports in late, VA did not always take actions to obtain them on time or provide documentation that an attempt had been made, as required by VA policy……Moreover, VA does not have a nationwide quality review process to ensure that these reviews are conducted properly and consistently.
“Guardianships: Collaboration Needed to Protect Incapacitated Elderly People“
All states have laws requiring courts to oversee guardianships, but court implementation varies. Most require guardians to submit periodic reports, but do not specify court review of these reports. Interstate jurisdictional issues sometimes arise when states do not recognize guardianships originating in other states. Most courts responding to our survey did not track the number of active guardianships, and few indicated the number of incapacitated elderly people under guardianship.
“Guardianships: Cases of Financial Exploitation, Neglect, and Abuse of Seniors”
“Most of the allegations we identified involved financial exploitation and misappropriation of assets. Specifically, the allegations point to guardians taking advantage of wards by engaging in schemes that benefit the guardian but are financially detrimental to the ward under their care. Also, the allegations underscore that the victim’s family members often lose their inheritance or are excluded by the guardian from decisions affecting their relative’s care.”
“Guardianships: Little Progress in Ensuring Protection for Incapacitated Elderly People”
GAO’s 2004 report had three principal findings. First, all states have laws requiring courts to oversee guardianships, but court implementation of these laws varies. Second, those courts recognized as exemplary in the area of guardianships focused on training and monitoring. Third, there is little coordination between state courts and federal agencies or among federal agencies regarding guardianships. At present, these findings remain largely the same, but there are some new developments to report. Since GAO’s report was issued, some states have strengthened their guardianship programs. For example, Alaska established requirements for licensing of private guardianships and New Jersey and Texas established requirements for the registration of professional guardians. However, there continues to be little coordination between state courts and federal agencies or among federal agencies in the protection of incapacitated people.
GAO’s report made recommendations to federal agencies, but to date little progress has been made.
“Incapacitated Adults: Oversight of Federal Fiduciaries and Court-Appointed Guardians Needs Improvement”
In its report, GAO found that only 13 states require criminal background checks on all potential court-appointed guardians, and that there are gaps in information sharing that can adversely affect incapacitated adults. GAO recommends that the Social Security Administration (SSA) find ways to share information with state courts dealing with the appointment of guardians for SSA beneficiaries. GAO also recommends that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services consider supporting promising court pilot programs that monitor guardians.
“The Extent of Abuse by Guardians Is Unknown, but Some Measures Exist to Help Protect Older Adults”
The extent of elder abuse by guardians nationally is unknown due to limited data on key factors related to elder abuse by a guardian, such as the numbers of guardians serving older adults, older adults in guardianships, and cases of elder abuse by a guardian. Court officials from six selected states GAO spoke to noted various data limitations that prevent them from being able to provide reliable figures about elder abuse by guardians, including incomplete information about the ages of individuals with guardians. Officials from selected courts and representatives from organizations GAO spoke to described their observations about elder abuse by a guardian, including that one of the most common types appeared to be financial exploitation. Some efforts are under way to try to collect better data on elder abuse and guardianship at the federal, state, and local levels to support decision making and help prevent and address elder abuse by guardians. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) plans to launch the National Adult Maltreatment Reporting System—a national reporting system based on data from state Adult Protective Services (APS) agency information systems by early 2017. According to HHS and its contractor, this system has the capability to collect information that could specifically help identify cases of elder abuse where a guardian was involved. GAO also identified state and local initiatives to capture key data points and complaint data as well as identify “red flags” such as unusually high guardian fees or excessive vehicle or dining expenses.
The federal government does not regulate or directly support guardianship, but federal agencies may provide indirect support to state guardianship programs by providing funding for efforts to share best practices and facilitate improved coordination, as well as by sharing information that state and local entities can use related to guardianship. State and local courts have primary responsibility over the guardianship process and, as such, have a role in protecting older adults with guardians from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Measures taken by selected states to help protect older adults with guardians vary but generally include screening, education, monitoring, and enforcement.