On Friday, November 4, 2011, the Houston Chronicle ran a front-page story entitled, “Elderly Texans at Risk, and It’s Legal,” which is the latest in a series of articles over the last few years regarding the Chronicle‘s perceived deficiencies in the way that guardianship cases are handled by the Probate Courts in Texas. You may recall that we reported on a similar story from October 22, 2010, and prior stories were published in the Chronicle in June 2007.
The new article depicts the story of Helen Hale, an 86-year old widow who was “plucked” from her house and placed into a retirement home, but the article glosses over the fact that Hale’s children were neglecting to provide appropriate care for her. The article cites that over 30,000 elderly people in Texas have “lost the right to decide where they live, to choose a caretaker or to spend their life savings…” due to becoming incapacitated in their later years. The article also cites that the number of guardianship cases in the larger counties like Harris, Travis, and Bexar has increased to the point that each probate judge handles a caseload of between 1,500 and 3,000 guardianships per court, but it fails to cite that these counties have special courts dedicated to handling guardianship cases. Most interestingly, the article casts a negative light on these courts because “most [probate] judges have only a single investigator to check out potential problems” in guardianship cases.
Although the Chronicle appears to tell a compelling story of neglect in the Probate Courts, the story clearly fails to convey the facts about guardianships accurately. The article faults the probate courts for having only one investigator per court, but it fails to mention that only the 10 largest counties in the State with special courts dedicated to handling guardianship cases have court investigators to investigate problems in guardianship cases. In the 224 other counties in the state, no court investigator exists in the entire county, which means that the vast number of counties in the state have nobody to investigate guardianship issues.
Likewise, in the 10 largest counties that have special judges dedicated to hearing nothing but probate and guardianship cases, the Courts have investigators and auditors to closely monitor what happens in guardianship cases. The 224 other counties in the state have judges who do not “specialize” in guardianship cases, and in many cases, those judges are not even lawyers. Instead, the courts in the 224 smaller counties hear a wide variety of cases – civil, criminal, family, guardianship, etc. – and do not offer incapacitated individuals the same level of attention that they receive in the larger counties.
The Chronicle is correct that the number of guardianship cases has exploded in the last 20 years because of the aging population in Texas. The Chronicle also correctly cites one of the Probate Judges in Houston when she says that guardianship disputes are “the most expensive endeavors that I see in probate courts.” Guardianship disputes are incredibly complex, and they are often made more complex by attorneys who do not routinely practice in this area and who do not fully understand the complexities of these cases before they get involved.
In reality, no system is perfect, and every system is going to have flaws. However, the Probate Courts in Harris County take the greatest care of any Courts in the state in attempting to protect the interests of the elderly in Houston. If you find that you need to pursue a guardianship over a family member, please contact Ford + Mathiason. Our attorneys have very substantial experience in contested guardianship cases, and we would be glad to assist you.