BALTIMORE -- It's a single legal step that can strip away a person's most basic rights.

It's called guardianship, and in Maryland, it means a person can lose his right to decide how to spend money, where to live, even whether to have surgery.

Guardianship provides for the appointment of a caretaker for people who are no longer physically or mentally capable of handling their own affairs. It is designed to be a safeguard.

But The Associated Press, in a yearlong examination of guardianships of the elderly in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, found often antiquated, chaotic systems where judges routinely place senior citizens under guardianship with little or no evidence, and then frequently lose track of the wards and their money. A survey of 2,000 files revealed numerous instances where money was stolen or misspent and wards were neglected and abused.

In Maryland, a four-month review of the guardianship of people 60 years and older found no such abuse. But interviews with judges, lawyers and other experts and an examination of 62 court cases not only found a state system that was inconsistent, but also one in which it often took just minutes for persons to lose their most precious rights.

Among the findings in Maryland: State law does not require guardians to visit their wards. In most cases, there is little, if any, court monitoring of the well-being of wards. Required annual reports of a ward's status, including whether guardianship should be continued, rarely showed up in the 62 files examined. Required annual financial accountings, however, of wards' assets were regularly found in files in cases in which there was a guardian of property. Doctors reports, used by judges to help determine whether guardianship is needed, were found in all files examined. But usually they amounted to just a sentence or two.

Court hearings to determine whether a person is disabled, or unable to handle his own affairs, sometimes were not held. But when they were held, they often lasted less than 10 minutes.

The law calls for jury trials to decide whether a person should be declared disabled, but judges don't agree on when such proceedings can be waived. Jury trials are routinely held in some jurisdictions, but are rarely, if ever, held in others.

"There probably are 24 different procedures between 23 counties and Baltimore City with regard to guardianship," said Anne Arundel Circuit Judge James C. Cawood Jr.

More than 5,000 Maryland residents are under guardianship, including minors, the mentally retarded and the aged. No one keeps records on how many people are in each group.

Guardians have the same legal rights that a parent has over a minor child. Guardians can be appointed to monitor a person or property. Court officials say most guardians handle both.

Virtually any adult can seek to become a guardian by filing a petition, accompanied by two doctors' certificates.

The procedure is so simple, it concerns some advocates of elderly rights.

"The underlying thing that I worry a lot about is the ease with which one can declare somebody incompetent and a guardianship can be established," said Marjorie Richmond, of the Baltimore County Department of Aging.

A person, agency or corporation chosen by the prospective ward has first priority in becoming a guardian, according to law. Although relatives are often appointed, some experts say they don't believe that's wise. Heirs may "try to conserve the estate . . . so that it doesn't get spent so they can get it when the person dies," said Anne K. Pecora, an assistant professor of law at the University of Baltimore Law School.

Once guardianship has been established, there are mechanisms to ensure the ward is protected.

The circuit court clerk's office in each county has an employe, frequently called a trust clerk, responsible for ensuring that guardians of property file annual accountings.

"We are the only one looking over the shoulder of the guardian, and if you don't have a good trust clerk, you might as well say goodbye to all kinds of supervision," said Henry Peters, a trust clerk in Baltimore.

Guardians of individuals also must submit reports on their wards' status. Yet these reports were rarely filed in the cases reviewed by AP. Some officials argue that even if the reports were filed, they would not guarantee proper treatment.

"If you are keeping someone in an upstairs closet . . . you're going to be, as guardian, saying that, 'The individual is living at home with me . . . and they have three square meals a day, and there really is no reason for concern,' " said William L. Marquat, Carroll County trust clerk. "No one knows what the private providers are actually doing."

Another controversial aspect of guardianship concerns written reports required of attorneys appointed by the court to represent prospective wards who do not have counsel. Private attorneys are not required to file such reports, which detail the condition of proposed wards.

A court-appointed attorney "is objective and owes nothing to anybody," said Catherine Bouchard, a Prince George's County trust lawyer.

She said five or six county cases were dismissed in recent months because once a court-appointed attorney investigated, it was concluded that guardianship was inappropriate or there was a better way to help the prospective ward.

But opponents say they put the appointed attorneys in the awkward position of giving the court confidential information that could hurt the proposed ward.

Most experts on legal matters and the elderly agreed, however, that guardianship, because of the drastic loss of rights, should always be considered a last resort.

Joyce Thompson, who headed the state Office on Aging's public guardianship unit, said, "I think we need to look at the person and make sure they have some dignity and self-esteem left after this process is over."