- John Pacenti Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Circuit Judge Martin Colin’s last vestige of power in the adult guardianship arena is now severed.
After weeks of speculation, Palm Beach County’s chief judge confirmed this week Judge Colin is out as the jurist coordinator of a novel new guardianship program aimed at resolving family conflicts in guardianships of incapacitated seniors and other adults.
The move follows Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath transferring Colin from the Probate & Guardianship Division – as well as the family division – following The Palm Beach Post’s investigation into Colin published in January.
Colin’s removal as one of two coordinators of the Eldercare Coordination Pilot Program for the county removes any ties he has with adult guardianship.
In Tallahassee Tuesday, a bill that would provide the first supervision of professional guardians by the state sailed toward passage. The House approved the measure, which would create the Office of Public and Professional Guardians under the state Department of Elder Affairs. The office would establish standards for both public and private guardians, receive and investigate complaints and penalize guardians who breach the standards.
The bill could receive final approval and head to the governor as early as Wednesday.
Colin, who is now in Circuit Civil Division, announced his retirement after The Post’s series of stories showed that money from incapacitated seniors in guardianships flows into his household via his wife, professional guardian Elizabeth “Betsy Savitt.
Savitt has compiled numerous complaints by family members of seniors in her care. They say the judge’s wife took tens of thousands of dollars in fees without judicial approval, double-billed and funnelled money to suspect relatives of the seniors in her care.
Colin wouldn’t hear his wife’s cases but allowed the attorneys who represented her to practice in front of him. Colin would award fees to these attorneys, who also referred guardianship cases to his wife. The families told The Post that Colin’s judicial colleagues ignored their complaints about Savitt.
Colbath also ordered all judges in South County Courthouse to recuse themselves from Savitt’s cases, among other changes he has made to restore the public’s faith in adult guardianship system.
Circuit Judge Janice Brustares Keyser will now oversee the Eldercare Coordination Pilot Program, which is still in its infant stages but aims to save money for families and the elderly by decreasing litigation in court. Some elder-law attorneys get the bulk of their fees — paid by the seniors’ savings – by exploiting family discord in guardianships, according to reform advocates.
The new program uses professionals – such as psychologists, lawyers and former judges – to sit down with families during a two-year span in hopes of resolving issues about money and care. It is currently in eight Florida counties.
It is separate from court-ordered mediation because the family members are willing to reconcile their differences with a third-party trained in conflict dispute resolution. It is modeled on what is used in divorce cases when parents feud over custody issues, said Linda Fieldstone, supervisor of family court services for Miami-Dade County and the co-chair for the state task force on the pilot program.
She said the program should cut down on attorneys’ fees by eliminating family conflict that can be rooted all the way back to childhood slights among siblings. “If general anxiety and fear and anger subside, we can focus more easily on the issues, instead of the conflict. The elder will be supported more productively and family members will be able to feel better about the outcome derived,” Fieldstone said.
An important test for the program in Palm Beach County could be the the guardianship of Margaret Estelle Reid in front of Keyser. Her son, Lawrence Reid, told The Post that he and his brothers and sisters agreed through the program to release money in a trust account to pay for additional expenses for their mother — but nothing else.
But there is a request from at least one lawyer for the court to open up the senior’s irrevocable trust in order to pay $145,000 in fees for no fewer than five attorneys, according to court documents. The office of attorney Jami Huber, who is requesting $62,500, declined to comment.
Lawrence Reid said he fears any resolution sought through the new pilot program will eventually be undermined by lawyers. He said the petition to modify the trust is a preemptive strike and makes the false claim that the siblings agreed to pay lawyers out of it.
“These attorneys are actually compromising the very viability and integrity of the eldercare program. Here they are going mano-to-mano with it,” he said. “This is a real test on how strong the eldercare program is. If this program works, I’ll be its strongest advocate.”