“A statewide chronic problem.”
That’s how Dr. Sam Sugar of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship describe the prevalence of guardianship abuse in Florida in an article from the Miami New Times. Our state’s problem with guardianship abuse has recently gained national attention, prompting many law enforcement officials and human rights advocates to call for reform.
In response, state legislators have sponsored a half-dozen regarding guardianship laws this year. Below, we’ve provided a brief outline of some of the most promising ones.
Senate Bill 318. Miami-Dade Republican Miguel Diaz de la Portilla sponsored this bill, which would impose further restrictions on when someone can be declared incapacitated.
House Bill 5. This bill was filed by Kathleen Passidomo, a Republican from Naples. If passed, the bill may limit the powers and fees of guardians, and would allow clerks of court to refer cases of abuse and misconduct for criminal prosecution.
Senate Bill 1226. Republican Senator Nancy Detert from Naples filed this bill, which would perhaps bring about the biggest change to Florida guardianship laws of all. The bill would create a new agency to supervise guardians, monitoring them closely for physical and financial abuse and other types of wrongdoing.
The Current Problems with Florida Guardianship Laws
Though Florida’s guardianship system is designed to protect the elderly and incapacitated, it often enables exploitive individuals to take advantage of their vulnerable victims. According to the Miami New Times, roughly 50,000 are currently in guardianships, the majority of whom are seniors with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or dementia.
When establishing a guardianship for these individuals, the courts seek to place them in the care of a loving, responsible, and financially capable loved one or relative. However, allegations of financial, physical, and emotional abuse are far too common in the Florida guardianship system.
Financial exploitation in particular is a common type of guardianship abuse, frequently committed by a family member, caregiver, or individual with power of attorney. Examples of financial abuse include:
- Stealing money, belongings, or property
- Using property or possessions without permission
- Selling property
- Changing the name on property titles
- Changing a will or trust
- Misuse of personal checks, credit cards, or accounts
Oftentimes, the perpetrators of such crimes are close relatives and spouses, who may have feel a sense of entitlement or feel justified in taking what they believe is rightfully theirs. Perpetrators with substance abuse, gambling, and other financial problems are also common.
Financial and other types of guardianship abuse often goes unreported and unnoticed, since elderly and incapacitated individuals are often unable to protest, understand, or even recognize the harm. Many guardians are able to make millions off their wards, since there is little being done to monitor their behavior or curb abuse. Effectually, courts strip wards of their rights, placing them at risk of abuse from the people who are supposed to protect their physical, mental, and financial well-being.
When a Loved One is a Victim of Guardianship Abuse
Though the proposed bills are a step in the right direction, Florida guardianship laws still have a long way to go. If you, a family member, or someone you care about has been the victim of guardianship abuse, consult with a Florida guardianship lawyer as soon as possible. An experienced lawyer can help you challenge a guardianship, bring abusive guardians to justice, and recover your loved one’s losses. An attorney can also help you raise awareness to the rampant problem of abuse in the Florida guardianship system.
About the Author:
Christopher Q. Wintter is the founder of Wintter & Associates, P.A. and a board-certified expert in Trust and Estate matters by the Florida Bar. With more than 24 years’ experience as a practicing attorney, he also serves as an instructor and faculty member for the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA)—the nation’s leading provider of legal advocacy skills training to practicing attorneys—and has earned the AV® Preeminent™ rating with LexisNexis Martindale Hubbell. He was also selected for inclusion in Florida Super Lawyers for 2011 and 2012 in Estate and Trust Litigation.