The New York Times recently ran an in-depth story about one victim of financial exploitation by a companion-caregiver who was acting as guardian to an elderly gentleman. Initially, the woman contacted her companion’s family saying that she was no longer able to care for the gentleman, who had dementia and other health issues.

When the family tried to take over, they learned that the woman had been financially exploiting their parent. They tried to take over as guardian, but even after much of the financial exploitation was revealed, the companion was allowed to continue as guardian and was even granted official guardianship over him. He died in her care, with a nest egg that had dwindled from $480,000 to $60,000, according to the Times.

Note: The story featured by the Times took place in a state where a “guardian” can be a person designated to look after either an incapacitated person’s finances or their welfare. Here in Georgia, a guardian is essentially a person in charge of welfare decisions, whereas the person in charge of financial affairs is called a conservator.

The entire Times story is tragic, but it’s only too typical in some guardianship and conservatorship systems around the country.

The nonprofit National Center for State Courts estimates that guardians and conservators around the country are in charge of about 1.3 million adults with disabling conditions that keep them from making decisions on their own. In total, they supervise about $50 billion in assets.

Unfortunately, the Government Accountability Office has noted that many guardianship and conservatorship systems in state courts are failing to protect wards from financial exploitation and physical abuse. In just eight cases the GAO examined last November, guardians or conservators had illegally taken over $600,000 from their wards.

One important cause of this rampant financial exploitation and physical abuse among guardians and conservators is lack of funding in the courts that would allow proper oversight. Moreover, many judges are simply too busy or lack the expertise to do more than a cursory review.

Advocates for the elderly are calling for nationwide reforms. In the meantime, what can you do to protect your parent or elderly relative if they become incapacitated?

Estate planning is the key. A proper estate plan can designate a trusted person or professional service to care take over for your loved one’s finances and medical decision making if they cannot. A comprehensive estate plan can prevent the need for a guardianship or conservatorship at all.

If your loved one needs a guardian or conservator now, work with an attorney experienced in elder law to build a case for yourself to be named, or to determine and advocate for another course of action.