Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Will Pennsylvania Pass Long-Awaited Adult-Guardianship Law Reforms Before End of 2017-18 Session? (Part 1)
For the last few years, I've been quietly observing draft bills addressing needed reforms of Pennsylvania's adult guardianship system as they circulate in the Pennsylvania legislature. Over the next few days, drawing upon a detailed update memorandum I prepared recently for interested parties, I will post reasons why the legislature can and, many would argue, should move forward in 2018.
Today, let's begin with background. First, here is the status of pending legislation and the timetable that could lead to passage:
Pennsylvania Senate Bill 884 (Printer’s No. 1147) presents an important opportunity to enact key reforms of Pennsylvania’s Guardianship Laws. The bill is based on long-standing recommendations from the Pennsylvania Joint State Government Commission. The Senate unanimously passed an earlier identical measure, S.B. 568, during the last legislative session (2015-16). The current bill was approved and voted out of Senate committee in June 2018, but then tabled. Although the schedule is tight, there is still time for action by both house before the end of the session in November. If not fully passed and signed this year, a new bill must be introduced in the next legislative session.
The Pennsylvania Senate has scheduled session days before the November election on September 24, 25, and 26 and October 1, 2, 3, 15, 16, and 17. The Pennsylvania House of Representatives also has scheduled session days for September 24, 25 and 25, and October 9, 10, 15, 16 and 17. If S.B. 884 is passed by the Senate in September, it appears there may be adequate opportunity for the House to move the legislation through the House Judiciary Committee and to the floor for final passage.
Second, let's review the steps taken most recently towards reform of existing Pennsylvania law:
In 2013-14, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court formed an Elder Law Task Force to study law-related matters relevant to the growing population of older persons in Pennsylvania. The team included members of all levels of courts in the Commonwealth, plus private attorneys, criminal law specialists, and perhaps most importantly, members of organizations who work directly with vulnerable adults, including but not limited to seniors. Guardianship reform quickly became a major focus of the study. I was a member of that Task Force.
Statistics available to the Task Force in 2014 show that some 3,000 new guardianship petitions are filed with the Pennsylvania Courts each year, of which approximately 65% are for alleged incapacitated persons over the age of 60. The number of new petitions can be expected to increase in the very near future. During the last six years, the cohort of Pennsylvania’s population between the ages 64 and 70 grew by a record 31.9%. Soon, that aging cohort will reach the years of greatest vulnerability with the increased potential for age-related cognitive impairments or physical frailty. Appointment of a guardian is usually a choice of last resort, sometimes necessary because of an emergency illness or because individuals have delayed using other means, such as execution of a power of attorney or trust, to designate personally-chosen surrogate decision-makers.
When a determination is made that an individual is incapacitated (as defined by statute) and in need of certain assistance (again, as defined by law), courts have the duty and power to appoint a person or an entity as the “guardian.” Once appointed by a court, guardians can be given significant powers, such as the power to determine all health care treatment, to decide where the individual lives, and to allocate how money can be spent. While Pennsylvania law states a preference for “limited guardianships,” in reality, especially if no legal counsel is appointed to represent the individual to advocate for limited authority, it is more typical to see a guardian be given extensive powers over both the “person” and the “estate.”
The Task Force began its work by undertaking a candid self-assessment of existing guardianship processes. Based on its review of the history of guardianships in Pennsylvania, the Task Force issued detailed findings as part of its final Report released in November 2014, including the following:
- Guardianship monitoring is weak, if it occurs at all.
- Training is not mandated for professional or non-professional guardians.
- Non-professional guardians are not adequately advised as to the duties and responsibilities of managing the affairs of an IP [incapacitated person].
- The quality of guardianship services varies widely, placing our most vulnerable citizens at great risk.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court identified a need for better information about the actions of appointed guardians; such information would be central to all recommended reforms. The Task Force recommended a new system enabling statewide accountability and consistent oversight.
Following the Task Force Report and Recommendations, and under the leadership of the Supreme Court, the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts began working on procedural reforms, beginning with creation of an Office of Elder Justice in the Courts. The Courts developed a new, online Guardianship Tracking System, and in June 2018 the Supreme Court adopted new Orphans Court rules (14.1 through 14.14) that establish certain procedural safeguards for guardianships and require use of uniform, state-wide forms and reporting standards for all guardians. These rules are scheduled to become fully effective by July 2019.
Pursuant to a Judicial Administration Rule adopted August 31, 2018, the Supreme Court mandated a phased implementation of the tracking system, with workshops offering training for guardians on how to use the system to file inventory and annual reports. See Guardianship Tracking System Workshop.
Not all recommended reforms, however, can be accomplished by the Courts adopting procedural rules. Key substantive reforms require legislative action. Senator Stewart Greenleaf, the chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee and a frequent sponsor of child and adult protective measures, introduced Senate Bill 884 (and its predecessor). After many years of service and leadership in the Capitol, Senator Greenleaf is retiring this year; therefore, any necessary renewal of the legislation must attract new leadership.
There is still time to enact Senate Bill 884. The Bill does not appear to be controversial for either party. It largely addresses well-identified gaps in coverage. The reforms include provisions that:
- Enable the courts to appoint “examiners of actions” of guardians and to use mediation or arbitration for disputes;
- Fix a long-festering question about the authority of guardians to make certain end-of-life health care decisions (by bringing guardians’ authority into conformity with decision-making powers held by other health care agents);
- Establish clearer grounds for when agents are required to be bonded;
- Establish priority appointment for family members (or persons otherwise preferred by the incapacitated person to serve as agents) as guardians;
- Create a presumption of confidential for proceedings, that can be waived for certain specified reasons;
- Establish a more precise process, with better procedural rights for the alleged incapacitated person, during applications for emergency appointments;
- Establish a clear right for all alleged incapacitated persons to have legal counsel to represent them in the guardianship proceedings; and
- Establish a clear right for adults who regain capacity to seek termination of a guardianship.
On Thursday, I'll continue posting this Update, by describing many of the case-based reasons for reform, not just in Pennsylvania, but in many regions of the nation.