Survey: Living wills of Incapacitated seniors ignored in guardianship

The South Florida advocacy group that pushed lawmakers to pass current reforms in adult guardianship asked its membership about their legal experiences. The finding gives a snapshot of a very broken system that is very lucrative for a handful of professionals and their attorneys.

The foremost finding of survey is that in more than three-quarters of cases judges ignored advanced directives of seniors and instead appointed a professional guardian, thus rendering carefully planned living wills moot.

Retired Hollywood physician Sam Sugar, who co-founded Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, said the survey went out to 285 members and that he received 67 responses from throughout the country.

His group says many professional guardians appointed to oversee the lives of incapacitated adults – a majority of them seniors with dementia – often take financial advantage of these vulnerable citizens and work with attorneys to drain assets and property. As plenary guardians they have complete control over their assets.

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Dr. Sam Sugar, co-founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship.

In the meantime, the family of these so-called wards find themselves powerless because judges are often complicit and allow the ransacking of the senior’s life savings. The problems in adult guardianship can be found nationwide as more baby boomers live longer their heirs and are more vulnerable to dementia and other degenerative diseases.

The Palm Beach Post in its series, Guardianships: A Broken Trust, revealed the incestuous nature of guardianship and how money from the savings of incapacitated seniors flowed into the household of Circuit Judge Martin Colin through his wife, professional guardian Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt.

Palm Beach County Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath  — in a series of reforms announced in the wake of the series —  transferred Judge Colin out of the Probate & Guardianship Division. Colin announced his retirement.

His wife’s cases were all moved to the North County Courthouse to prevent an appearance of favoritism by Colin’s closest colleagues but she continues to operate.

Judge Martin Colin presides over a hearing on Thursday, August 20, 2015 at the South County Courthouse in Delray Beach. Judge Colin's wife Elizabeth Savitt, who is a professional guardian, was simultaneously participating in a hearing in another courtroom with Attorney Sheri Hazeltine. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)
Judge Martin Colin presides over a hearing. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

 

Elizabeth Savitt appears at a hearing with Attorney Sheri Hazeltine to discuss attorney fees for Albert Bach on Thursday, August 20, 2015 at the South County Courthouse in Delray Beach. Elizabeth Savitt is the wife of Judge Martin Colin and also a professional guardian. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)
Elizabeth Savitt appears at a hearing  (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

The Florida Legislature in the last two years has passed reforms to give the state its first regulatory authority over professional guardians and to hold them criminally accountable when they defraud the wards in their care.

Sugar said ignoring pre-need directives is a violation of due process for the incapacitated seniors and “spits in the face of our American notions of fair play, civil rights and justice.”

“This racket is unfettered, growing, predatory, and operates with absolute impunity because of the involvement of elected judges who function without supervision or monitoring or juries,” Sugar said.

In a landmark case, the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach last year ruled that pre-need directives must be followed by the judge when determining a guardian.

The questionnaire also found 30 percent of guardianships are switched from public to private guardianship and back.

“This tactic is used by abusive guardians and their attorneys to maximize their cash flow since in many public guardianships for destitute individuals are prohibited from selling any property the ward might own,” Sugar said. “In switching back and forth between public and private guardianship the predators guarantee that they will take every possible dollar from every possible source.”

More than 80 percent of those who sent in survey said they believed the judge who appointed the professional guardian were improperly influenced. About 65 percent of respondents believe the judge was responsible for the abuse in their cases.

Nearly 50 percent said their loved ones were isolated from their family by professional guardians and over-medicated.

All the results of the AAAPG survey can be found by clicking here.

 

Gov. Scott signs guardianship reform law to protect seniors

More than four years ago, concerned families went to lawmakers for the first time with their stories of how professional guardians were ransacking the estates of the elderly.

Groups such as South Florida-based Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship talked about how unethical guardians appointed by judges were isolating seniors from their families, over-medicating them and then taking their money through frivolous fees.

On Thursday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill giving the state its first regulatory authority over professional guardians who are appointed by courts to take over the lives of incapacitated senior citizens. The bill was one of 25 Scott signed into law.

The new law creates an Office of Public and Professional Guardians and requires the office standardize practices and create rules for professional guardians. It also gives the office enforcement power, including the ability to revoke a guardian’s registration.

It follows in the wake of a guardianship reform bill signed last year by Scott that imposed criminal penalties for exploitation or abuse of a senior in guardianship among other changes.

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Sheila Jaffe (left) and Natalie Andre (right), President of FACTS (Families Against Court Travesties), protest last month with a group of people about the state of guardianship outside the South County Courthouse in Delray Beach. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

Guardianship reforms are not just happening in Tallahassee.

Following The Palm Beach Post’s series Guardianships: A Broken Trust in January on how judges are complicit in allowing the savings of seniors to be soaked by guardians and their attorneys, the chief judge acted.

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James Vassallo with his father, Albert. Vassallo claims professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt – wife of Judge Martin Colin – took money without court approval and failed to account for all of his father’s assets.

Palm Beach County Chief Circuit Judge Jeffrey Colbath transferred Circuit Judge Martin Colin out of the Probate & Guardianship Division.

Colin’s wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, works as a professional guardian, compiling complaints from families for taking tens of thousands of dollars in fees without court approval. The chief judge required the south county judges to recuse themselves from her cases and instituted other reforms, as well.

 

James Vassallo’s father was in a Savitt guardianship. He said the new law signed by Scott could be the right remedy.

“Nobody was looking at the professional guardians watching what they were doing,” he said. “They are abusing their guardianship privileges.”

Dr. Sam Sugar, co-founder AAAPG, said the passage of this law is clear progress.

“We look forward to being intimately involved – as promised in the legislation – in the development of rules and regulations of this new department as advocates for victims of abusive guardianships,” he said.