The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol. 41, Issue 4.)
Understanding local and national population trends, and anticipating the demographic changes to come, are crucial to planning for court systems and processes that will support those changes. In Pennsylvania in 2019, about 2.7 million people - roughly one in five -- were over the age of 60. More than 300,000 Pennsylvanians were over the age of 85. By the year 2030, the 60-plus population in Pennsylvania is expected to exceed 3.6 million people.
Task Force Convened
In 2013, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania convened a multi-disciplinary Elder Law Task Force designed to study, identify and make recommendations to address particular concerns regarding elders. The task force consisted of 38 issue experts including jurists, elder advocates and attorneys, Orphans' Court clerks, prosecutors, educators and representatives of the financial industry. The task force was charged with creating a foundation for substantive improvements in the way elders in Pennsylvania interact with the court system, and to develop a blueprint to address those challenges.
In November 2014, the task force released a comprehensive report containing 130 recommendations -- 91 of those were made to the Supreme Court. The other 39 recommendations extended to the judiciary's sister branches of government, prosecutors, bar associations, the federal government, the public and victim services providers. The task force members understood that their changes would not occur overnight.
The first recommendation, adopted in January 2015, was the creation of the Office of Elder Justice in the Courts (OEJC) within the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC). The OEJC is charged with assisting the Supreme Court with implementation of the task force recommendations. The OEJC develops and participates in presentations and trainings for the judges, attorneys, court staff, guardians and others; fosters collaboration with other elder justice entities; serves as a resource on elder issues to the entire Unified Judicial System; promotes best practices to address elder abuse and neglect; and responds to requests from the public.
The second recommendation resulted in the establishment of the Advisory Council on Elder Justice in the Courts, which collaborates with the executive and legislative branches of state government and communicates with the AOPC and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania about the implementation of the task force's recommendations and other matters involving elder justice.
Pennsylvania Orphans' Court Rules
Through procedural rules, the Orphans' Court protects the welfare of incapacitated persons. The Supreme Court's Orphans' Court Procedural Rules Committee created and submitted a proposal, crafted in response to the task force's recommendations, to comprehensively overhaul the Orphans' Court rules related to guardianship proceedings.
These reforms include:
- Creating a standardized report form for experts to ensure consistent quality/quantity of information available to judges when determining capacity
- Determining eligibility for guardian consideration that favors family members, but doesn't exclude friends and relatives
- Requiring criminal background checks
- Appointing counsel if deemed appropriate
- Verification by counsel of representation and the scope and duration of that representation
- Timely and efficient fee dispute resolution
- Requiring the filing of an inventory report within 90 days of a guardian's appointment
- Completion of an annual report by the guardian one year after appointment
- Monitoring by the Orphans' Court clerk or the court's designee of the guardianship docket to ensure compliance with reporting requirements
- Notification by the Orphans' Court clerk to the court of delinquent or incomplete reports
- Review of filed reports by the court or its designee
- Recommended remedial actions regarding reporting issues
The new Orphans' Court rules represent a tremendous accomplishment by the rules committee. Along with new forms drafted by the task force and the advisory council, the rules were adopted by the Supreme Court and became effective in June 2019, bringing with them increased efficiencies and oversight of the guardianship process. Arguably the most significant accomplishment of the advisory council and the OEJC is the creation and implementation of the Guardianship Tracking System (GTS).
Guardianship issues can arise from those who protect the interests of an incapacitated person and who have the duty and power to make decisions for him or her. The judiciary has grappled with the practical difficulties in appointing and monitoring guardians, which have been cited as significant areas of concern with respect to elders. A primary impediment to real reform in this area has been the lack of timely, accurate, and complete guardianship data, which is essential to resolution of these
Pennsylvania's GTS is a web-based application used by court-appointed guardians, Orphans' Court clerks, court staff and judges to file, manage, track and submit reports related to the guardianships of incapacitated persons. The GTS integrates statewide guardian information, thereby helping to protect the state's most vulnerable citizens while streamlining and improving the guardianship filing process.
Under the guidance of the advisory council, the AOPC designed and implemented the GTS. AOPC's Information Technology Department (AOPC/IT) began the requirements gathering phase of the GTS project in January 2017. A Joint Application Design (JAD) committee, consisting of Orphans' Court judges and clerks, district court administrators and others, was established to steer the design. The fully functional system was piloted in Pennsylvania's second largest county in July 2018. One month later, AOPC/IT proceeded with an aggressive schedule to implement GTS in up to four counties a week until the last of Pennsylvania's 67 counties went live in December 2018. The project also included 46 regional workshops for up to 100 guardians per session to be trained on the system. The estimated total cost of the GTS project was $4.9 million, which included AOPC/IT in-house development, data migration, training and production support.
In the time since it went live statewide, the GTS has provided a mechanism to collect statewide statistical data for Pennsylvania's entire active guardianship caseload. As of December 31, 2019, the active guardianship caseload in Pennsylvania was 18,399 cases. At year's end, the total assets under court supervision for guardianships were valued at $1.4 billion. The GTS provides court offices with a tool that facilitates greater control over the management of guardianship cases for incapacitated persons. GTS functionality centers on the automation of court functions, the electronic notification to guardians of upcoming and overdue reports, compliance tracking for mandatory reporting, the insertion of defined "flags" for potential concerns of loss and neglect, statewide propagation of alerts placed on guardians, and the delivery of detailed statistics.
The GTS is the exclusive method for e-filing guardian inventories and annual reports in Pennsylvania, creating a uniform and efficient filing experience for guardians. The benefits to GTS e-filing, beyond the obvious cost-savings of time, paper, postage, and court user manual entry, are considerable. The GTS guides the guardian through the report submission process, dynamically displaying supplementary questions based on the guardian's input and providing help text for clarification. Data is prepopulated, as appropriate, from the prior year's report. Arithmetic errors are eliminated, and the GTS will not allow the electronic submission of a report that is missing required data.
When the court user accepts the report into the filing office through the GTS, the data is interrogated using a robust set of business rules to identify potential concerns of loss or neglect. The GTS is not designed to determine a hierarchy of potential loss between cases, as the intention is to have every report reviewed every year. The GTS inserts flags based on criteria entered on annual reports for both the "Guardian of the Estate" and the "Guardian of the Person." Examples of flags set by the GTS include the invasion of principal asset where an order does not exist on the case to allow the invasion, unapproved attorney fees, or the relocation of the incapacitated person's primary residence. The primary intent of the flags is to alert the person responsible for reviewing the report that a potential concern exists in a given area, but the flags also provide statistical information that can be compiled for the advisory council, facilitating a data-driven approach to guardianship reform and policy making.
Prior to the GTS, few of Pennsylvania's 67 county systems provided functionality to track overdue reports or efficiently notify guardians who were late submitting their reports. Even courts that were diligent in reviewing submitted annual reports still had difficulty managing their guardianship cases because they might not have a reliable means to know which submissions remained outstanding. Today the GTS is tracking every active guardianship case. The GTS sends an electronic notification to guardians to alert them when a due date for filing a report is approaching or when the due date has passed. Court offices have access to a list of all overdue reports so that action can be taken when a guardian fails to comply.
The GTS allows an Orphans' Court judge to place an alert on a guardian for abuse, neglect or financial exploitation. This action causes an alert icon to display next to that guardian's name any time it is returned in a search for available guardians. Additionally, an electronic notification is immediately sent to court users in counties where an active appointment for that guardian exists. The judge issuing the alert can include extensive comments, including the reasons for the alert and add attachments such as newspaper articles or other documentation, if desired. Real-time information is critical to the administration of justice on guardianship cases in Pennsylvania.
To date, one of the greatest impacts of the GTS project has been to provide valuable information on the management of- guardianship cases. The mandate for Pennsylvania's Orphans' Courts to use GTS has been essential in accurately determining the active guardianship caseload in Pennsylvania. AOPC/IT professionals worked closely with court office staff and vendors to migrate data from all 67 county case management systems into GTS. The migration exercise revealed that many of county guardianship cases had not been updated in some time. Some counties struggled to identify how many of the incapacitated persons under supervision in their county were still alive and remained incapacitated.
For each case migrated into GTS, the confirmation of a death record, restoration order, or other resolution of the case had to be confirmed before the case was closed. If the resolution of a case was in question at the time the county migrated on to the GTS platform, the case was included in the county's active caseload. Through this arduous process, a clean set of active guardianship cases emerged, and the guardians who remained on active cases were compelled by court order to resume, and in some cases initiate, mandatory annual report submissions. Another significant benefit to the GTS is that it has aligned county practices regarding mandatory annual reporting by guardians. Prior to the GTS, due dates were often not set in compliance with the statutory language.
GTS is a statewide system that allows for effective and timely communications to all Orphans' Court and other court offices in Pennsylvania. The GTS alert feature is an important tool to immediately notify courts if an active case exists in their court with an appointed guardian for whom an alert has been created.
While work remains to be done, the advisory council and the OEJC have taken significant steps to help protect the assets and lives of vulnerable Pennsylvanians. With the implementation of the GTS, data is being captured that provides detailed statewide statistics, not just on the number of open cases and the amount of money under court supervision, but also on other factors impacting the lives of incapacitated persons. This data will allow the judiciary to facilitate a data-driven, evidence-based approach to guardianship reform.