A near-fatal automobile accident four years ago left former Washington area resident Marguerite Van Etten, 66, in a coma. When she regained her mental faculties two months later, she found she had been declared incompetent in a court guardianship proceeding initiated by her eldest daughter.

"I learned that common criminals had more rights than a person under guardianship," Van Etten yesterday told a congressional subcommittee investigating abuses in the system under which a person is declared incompetent, often without being informed of his or her legal rights.

Most humiliating, Van Etten said, was when she went to vote in 1984 and learned that she no longer would be allowed to cast a ballot. "They told me they knew me as '83-0449; Van Etten, Mentally Incompetent,' " she said.

Van Etten, a dietitian who lived and worked in Montgomery County from 1949 to 1972, was one of 12 witnesses who appeared before the House Subcommittee on Health and Long-Term Care to urge reform of the nation's guardianship system, which now covers an estimated 500,000 older Americans.

Rep. Claude Pepper (D.-Fla.), chairman of the subcommittee, called the hearing to examine the problems with guardianships at a time when the nation's population of the frail elderly is rapidly growing. "We are going into this as it affects the elderly because they are the most likely to be the victims," Pepper said.

Among those recommending action were:

Etan Merrick, wife of Broadway producer David Merrick, who said the present system permits "outright atrocities." She said her husband, whose business empire was placed in conservatorship after he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1983, was "victimized" by the "machinery of court-appointed guardians and their staffs of lawyers, paralegals, secretaries, word processing operators, messengers and the attendant cost of Federal Express and Overseas Couriers, et cetera."

Minnie Monoff, 81, of Greeley, Kan., who said she suffered a stroke in February 1984 and then returned home where she "wanted to continue raising my chickens, receive my Meals-on-Wheels, and see my friends and neighbors." Instead, Minoff said, she was forced into a nursing home by a court-appointed guardian. Minoff said she spent five weeks in a nursing home before she overturned the guardianship.

John Hartman, 34, a Detroit convict serving a five-year prison term for abusing his office as public guardian in Bay City, Mich. He admitted embezzling $129,506 during his eight-year tenure. Hartman, who was working as a janitor in a local tavern when he was hired for the public guardian job, said he was overseeing 210 wards and $1.5 million in income and assets in 1984. Hartman described the public guardianship system as "completely unregulated."

Pepper applauded the Associated Press' study of guardianship abuses in 50 states.The AP found that 97 percent of guardianship petitions were approved. It found that a survey of 2,000 guardianships revealed numerous instances in which money was stolen and misspent and wards neglected and abused.

Subcommittee staff members said that most of the people who are placed in guardianships are very old, widowed and live in nursing homes. Their average age is 80 and the majority are women.

Jim Godes, a subcommittee investigator, said it is easy for an elderly person to be declared incompetent.

"We discovered that in many counties, the sympathy of the courts, indeed the whole focus of the process, lay with the person petitioning for guardianship and not with the elderly person who stands to lose his or her rights and dignity," Godes said.

After an elderly person is placed under a guardianship, Godes said, the courts require "infrequent accountings . . . or no accountings at all." He said that even when there are follow-up procedures, they usually involve an accounting of the elderly person's funds but rarely an accounting of the guardian's treatment of the person.

The subcommittee said that an elderly person can be declared incompetent on the basis of "advanced age" in the District of Columbia and 33 states including Maryland but not Virginia.

In her testimony, Van Etten recounted how she had been moved from her home in Broward County, Fla., to her daughter's home in Mount Airy, Md.

"I really wanted to live in my own home in Florida, but it appeared I had no choice," she said. "When I asked my daughter questions, all I'd get would be evasive answers and shrugs."

The daughter, Karen Burdette, said yesterday that she had Van Etten placed in guardianship because it "allowed me to pay her bills legally, handle her affairs to the best of my ability" while her mother was recovering from the accident.

Van Etten said that she returned to Florida in February 1984 against her daughter's protests. "When I got there, it was like a bad dream," she said. "My furniture was gone -- my daughter had had it shipped to Maryland even before I was declared incompetent. I had to sleep on a sleeping bag on the bare floor, which wasn't easy with the injuries I'd suffered in the accident. I'd lost my job. My driver's license had been revoked. I had trouble drawing on my bank accounts in my own name."

In 1984, nearly a year after the accident, Van Etten succeeded in overturning the guardianship and regaining control of her life, her belongings and her right to vote.

In her testimony, Van Etten said the loss of her voting privileges was the last straw. "I decided to do everything possible to learn about guardianships and existing laws," she said. "I had taken a law course when I worked on my master's degree, so I had a little background.

"I went around town by bus, with one eye, visiting courts, libraries and knowledgeable individuals . . . I made an appointment with a psychiatrist who examined me and found me in good health."

The next step, she said, was to find a lawyer. After seven months of research and regular visits to the court, Van Etten said, she was restored to competency. She estimated that her experience cost her $40,000.

Van Etten warned that what happened to her could happen to anyone else. "All you have to do is have a stroke or be in a coma and they can take away all your rights," she said.