There has been regular discussion in the news lately about the elder abuse problem in our nation’s nursing homes. We’ve seen numerous reports of physical and sexual assault, negligent care and the unauthorized use of antipsychotic drugs on residents.

In addition to these horrifying crimes, there is another–equally serious–form of elder abuse that has received comparatively little media attention: the financial abuse of the elderly by their court-appointed guardians.

If an older person begins to exhibit signs of dementia, a concerned family member or friend may ask the court to intervene. If a judge determines that the individual in question is incapable of making responsible decisions concerning their own property or health, they may appoint a guardian to make such decisions for them.

Frequently, a guardian is an elderly person’s close family member or trusted friend. However, in cases where such an option does not exist, the elderly person (known as a “ward”) will be assigned a professional guardian–a total stranger who receives complete authority over all of the individual’s most critical assets. Today in the U.S., there are an estimated 1.3 million people with a professional guardian.

How does professional guardianship work?

Professional guardianship comes at a cost. Guardians charge fees for all of their services rendered. In addition, guardians have free access to all of their wards’ private information–including their bank accounts. Therefore, guardians are in the unique position of being able to charge for their work and then directly draw that amount from their ward’s bank account.

This system has limited oversight to ensure that services are charged appropriately–and financial abuse is a concern. There have been numerous cases of professional guardians who sucked their wards’ bank accounts dry. A system that was designed to protect vulnerable adults has ended up devastating them.

Although there is shockingly little government oversight of professional guardians, the behavior described above is not legal. Such guardians have been charged with felonies including theft, exploitation and racketeering.

If you or a loved one has suffered at the hands of a court-appointed guardian, it’s worth consulting with an experienced elder abuse attorney. You have the right to seek justice.