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.
Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga on Monday announced members of a task force that will focus on guardianship issues facing Florida’s courts.
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 Guardianships: A Broken Trust. The stories resulted in an overhaul of the system in Palm Beach County courts. Circuit Judge Martin Colin announced his retirement after the stories.
However, 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 seniors’s bank accounts prior to judicial approval, The Post found.
Savitt is often defended by Boca Raton attorney Ellen Morris, who recently sent a letter to the Department of Elder Affairs opposing proposed rules to regulate professional guardians. The six-page letter outlines a series of complaints and says the “rule proposals can not be implemented without extensive challenge and litigation.”
Morris is the chair of the Elder Law Section of the Florida Bar and has argued — in the letter and repeatedly on behalf of Savitt — that professional guardians can take fees from a senior’s life savings before a judge approves them.
The Post spoke to numerous guardianship attorneys and none reads state statute as allowing guardians to take fees prior to judicial approval.
Morris did not respond to an e-mail inquiry about her letter.
In a news release, Labarga, who lives in Welllington, said he created 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, 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 paid for by the incapacitated senior.
Florida’s guardianship system assists and protects individuals judged by a court to be unable to make decisions for themselves. When appointed by the court, guardians can make decisions about an individual’s care, finances or property on their behalf.
The Guardianship Workgroup established under the Court’s Judicial Management Council, will advise the chief justice and the Supreme Court on long-range issues confronting Florida’s judiciary.
Highlands County Circuit Judge Olin Shinholser, a member of the JMC, will serve as chair. 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 lawmakers 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.
Besides Shinholser, other members of the work group include:
- 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, PLLC, Naples
- Andrew Sasso, Macfarlane Ferguson & McMullen, Clearwater
- Karen Campbell, North Florida Office of Public Guardian, Tallahassee
- Vicki Alkire, Viable Alternatives, Inc., Sarasota
“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.