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Computer Analysis Yields Portrait of Elderly Wards

September 27, 1987

Standardized reports on more than 2,200 court cases from across the country, dating back to 1980, were analyzed by a computer database developed by the Associated Press for its study of guardianship of the elderly.

The research yielded a portrait of the nation's elderly wards and their guardians, and of court procedures.

Here is a sampling of the results:

The average age of wards was 79. About 67% were female; 35% lived in their own homes before guardianship; 33% were moved during guardianship, and 64% were placed in nursing homes at some time.

About 87% of the wards had some sort of notice about the impending guardianship; 44% went through the court process without legal representation.

In about 75% of the cases, there were hearings. Only 8% of the files indicated that the elderly person attended the hearing. Judges approved 97% of the petitions.

At least one doctor was consulted in 66% of the cases studied; 34% were approved without any doctor's opinion.

When the cause of incompetence was given, the leading reasons were:

- 19%, inability to care for self or finances;

- 16%, senility or dementia;

- 11%, organic or chronic brain syndrome;

- 8%, old age or advanced age;

- 8%, mental illness;

- 6%, stroke;

- 2%, Alzheimer's disease;

- 1%, forgetfulness;

- 1%, alcoholism.

Only 16% of the files contained reports on the condition of wards after guardianships were granted. In 48% of the files, annual accountings of money were missing.

Two-thirds of the guardians had to post bonds, but bond premiums were charged to the wards' estates in almost a third of the cases.

The wards entered guardianship with an average worth of $97,551. By the time the guardianships ended, 3.4 years after being opened, an average of $12,000 had been spent from the estate. In cases where the guardians indicated that they had been paid for their services, the average annual fee was $1,224.

In 4% of the files, gifts were paid for out of the estate; 11% of the estates were depleted during guardianship.

In 45% of the cases, the files were formally closed, usually because of death of the ward. In 13%, there was nothing added to the file after the opening of the guardianship.

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