The complaints emanate from all over the state and, really, the nation: Seniors and others found incapacitated by the courts too often are treated like piggy banks by professional guardians who put their fees above the needs of the ward or concerns of loved ones.
Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga on Monday announced members of a task force that will focus on the growing concern about guardianships in Florida’s courts.
The announcement comes as the state tries to establish for the first time a regulatory authority over professional guardians.
He said few decisions are more challenging to a judge than removing a person’s rights because they are no longer capable of making decisions independently.
The Palm Beach Post, Labarga’s hometown newspaper, has reported extensively on guardianship, particularly how one judge and his wife benefited from it in the series, Guardianships: A Broken Trust. The stories resulted in reforms in Palm Beach County courts. Circuit Judge Martin Colin announced his retirement after the stories.
Colin’s wife, Elizabeth Savitt, continues to serve as a professional guardian despite increasing complaints by loved ones of her incapacitated wards. She has taken tens of thousands of dollars from incapacitated seniors’ bank accounts before a judge approved them, The Post found.
Lidya Abramovici is the former legislative liaison for Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship and says the group has lobbied Labarga for months to get involved as complaints mount from families who see their loved ones and their life savings ransacked by unethical professional guardians.
“The time has come for the Florida Supreme Court to become aware of what is happening in Florida with the injustice to the elderly and the financial abuse,” she said.
Abramovici said two reforms that can help are to cap fees for guardians and their attorneys and to require judges not to overrule advanced directives seniors made before they were declared incapacitated.
Cases to increase
In a news release, Labarga, who lives in Welllington, said he created what he calls the “work group” because guardianship caseloads are increasing in number and complexity.
“As Florida grows and ages, we can expect more and more cases dealing with guardianship issues to come into our courts,” Labarga said.
Individuals found incapacitated by the court are appointed a guardian. If a family member is not available, often a professional guardian steps in with complete control of the senior’s finances, medical decisions and housing.
In Florida and across the nation, many professional guardians have been found to act in their own interests and not those of the incapacitated ward. Families of seniors have found themselves unable to battle professional guardians, who often employ legions of attorneys who are paid out of the savings of the senior.
Highlands County Circuit Judge Olin Shinholser will serve as chairman. He said there is too often conflict between the needs and desires of the ward — often a senior battling dementia — and the guardian, caregivers and even the family.
“Comments and complaints from various stakeholders are indicative that we need to take a closer look at whether the rules and procedures in place accomplish the balance needed,” he said.
State legislators passed laws in the last two legislative sessions to increase the state’s regulation and oversight of guardians.
“This is an appropriate time to re-evaluate our system and determine if the courts are doing everything possible to meet the needs of everyone involved,” Labarga said. “It’s imperative we stay proactive in this area and provide real solutions to emerging issues.”
The work group will tackle a number of guardianship issues, including restoration of capacity for the senior or person put in a guardianship. Costs — which usually mean fees for the guardian and at least one lawyer — will also be addressed.
An interim report is due to the court by October 2017 and a final report is due to the court by September 2018.
“Further evaluating guardianship practices supports the branch’s goal of ensuring that court procedures and operations are easily understandable and user-friendly and supports our mission to protect rights and liberties of all,” Shinholser said.
Judge Olin Shinholser, Highlands County, Sebring (chairman)
Judge Robert Lee, Broward County, Fort Lauderdale
Judge Michelle Morley, 5th Circuit, Bushnell
Judge Peter Dearing, 4th Circuit, Jacksonville
Judge Maria Korvick, 11th Circuit, Miami
Jason Nelson, Office of Public and Professional Guardians, Florida Department of Elder Affairs, Tallahassee
Laird Lile, Lile & Hayes, Naples
Andrew Sasso, Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen, Clearwater
Karen Campbell, North Florida Office of Public Guardian, Tallahassee
Vicki Alkire, Viable Alternatives Inc., Sarasota
What The Post Found
The savings of incapacitated seniors flowed into the household of Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Martin Colin courtesy of Colin’s wife — professional guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt. Fees in most of her cases were approved by another judge who is a friend of her husband’s. See the stories from the beginning at myPalmBeachPost.com/guardianships-colin-savitt/]]>