After a hearing closed to the public and the media, a judge on Monday appointed a professional guardian to oversee the care — as well as the millions of dollars — of Mary Montgomery, the Palm Beach socialite and widow of legal legend Robert Montgomery.
The guardianship of one of the county’s most celebrated philanthropists comes the same month the Florida Legislature passed a bill to establish the state’s first regulatory authority over professional guardians whose ranks have come under fire for gouging the life savings of incapacitated senior citizens through fees for themselves and their legion of attorneys.
The Palm Beach Post’s series in January, Guardianships: A Broken Trust, explored cronyism in the county judiciary that allowed professional guardians to take fees without prior judicial approval and act without fear of reprisal. As a result, one judge was transferred from the guardianship division and reforms were instituted to address conflicts of interest.
The hearing Monday in front of Circuit Judge John Phillips pitted Montgomery’s daughter, Courtnay, against her mother’s long-time administrative aide Hilda Santana.
The Post reported on Sunday that Santana petitioned to become Montgomery’s guardian, stating in court documents that the 85-year-old suffers from dementia. She cited Courtnay’s arrest in Minnesota last October in which the daughter allegedly tried to bite a law enforcement officer checking on her mother’s welfare. Santana said Courtnay was unfit to oversee her mother’s case or her vast finances.
The resolution on Monday came after Montgomery’s attorney Theo Kypreos asked Judge Phillips to close the hearing to the public, which is allowed under the guardianship statute. As a result, a Post reporter and photographer had to leave the courtroom after Phillips denied a hearing sought by The Post on First Amendment grounds.
Neither Montgomery nor Courtnay were present for the proceeding, but attorneys said the daughter agreed to veteran professional guardian John Cramer overseeing Montgomery’s care. Cramer will be assisted by Montgomery’s nephew John Neasen, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
Unlike in some guardianships, Montgomery will retain certain legal rights, but it was unknown late Monday which ones or how much her assets will be managed.
She receives $1.5 million every four months stemming from her late husband’s greatest legal triumph: a $11.3 billion settlement with tobacco companies on behalf of the state of Florida. The Montgomerys have given reportedly $100 million to various causes and the arts.
Ed Downey, attorney for Santana, said his client is satisfied with the resolution because it ensures the safety of Montgomery.
“Cramer is a very respected guardian and Judge Phillips is a very cautious jurist and I think it will be run very very smoothly,” he said. “Hilda worked for Mary for 30 years and the circumstances in Minnesota caused her to be very concerned about Mary’s welfare and safety.”
Cramer was the guardian in the contentious guardianship of J. Alan Smith that the The Post examined in length last year.
Cramer annulled the marriage of Smith to Glenda Martinez, who successfully had him removed by invoking a pre-need directive of Smith written before he was found incapacitated by the courts. After ousting Cramer as guardian, Martinez removed Smith from a nursing home and now cares for him in Miami. She is still fighting the annulment.
After the hearing, Courtnay Montgomery could not be reached for comment. She did leave a voicemail message for a Post reporter on Saturday, saying she wanted to reshape the guardianship system in Palm Beach County, if not the rest of the state.
“This case is more than about my mom. It is what is happening in Palm Beach County. It is what is happening in our judicial system,” she said. “I know in the bottom of my heart, my dad would expect me to carry on his legal legacy and do something to protect vulnerable adults in our community.”
She said she was told to keep quiet by her attorneys,, but appeared suspicious of any court oversight of a professional guardian. “Reporting to the court doesn’t really do a hell of a lot. They still charge what they want,” she said.