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.

 

 

Post investigation: Another blow to Judge Colin

After weeks of speculation, the chief judge confirmed that Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Martin Colin is out as coordinator of a new guardianship program to resolve family disputes.

Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath transferred Colin from the Probate & Guardianship Division – as well as the family division – following The Palm Beach Post’s investigation into Colin. Now Colin is out as coordinator of the Eldercare Coordination Program, thus severing all ties with adult guardianship.

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 now has no ties to adult guardianship following latest move by chief judge. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

Colin’s wife – Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt – works as a professional guardian for incapacitated seniors and adults. The Post found numerous complaints about Savitt taking tens of thousands of dollars in fees without judicial approval, double-billing and funneling cash to suspect family members of the seniors in her care.

Her work as a guardian created what a former Florida Supreme Court justice dubbed an appearance of impropriety for Colin and conflicts for the judiciary as a whole. Colin wouldn’t hear Savitt’s cases, but did allow for years attorneys who represented his wife and referred her guardianship cases to appear before him. Colin would at times grant lucrative fees to these attorneys.

In the meantime, families said Colin’s colleagues would turn a blind eye to their complaints about Savitt – particularly Circuit Judge David French, reportedly a friend of Colin and Savitt.

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)
Families say Colin’s fellow judges turned a blind eyes to their complaints about his wife, professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt . (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

Besides his job as judge, Colin helped coordinate the Eldercare program,  which sought to resolve disputes among family members of seniors in guardianships. The program uses professionals – such as psychologists, lawyers and former judges – to sit down with families over a two-year span in hopes of resolving issues over money and care.

Circuit Judge Janice Brustares Keyser will now oversee the program, which is still in its infant stages but aims to save money by decreasing litigation in court. Some guardianship attorneys make thousands of dollars in fees – taken from the seniors’ accounts – by exploiting family discord, according to guardianship reform advocates.