20 August 2009

Guardianship in Florida: Legalized Robbery and Exploitation of the Elderly and Disabled!

I picked up a copy of today’s St. Petersburg Times (Thursday, 20 August 2009) only to find an article in the B section which broke my heart. It is the story of a woman who was stricken with Alzheimer’s Disease who had a trust drawn up earlier and amended it so that she can live out her last days at home. I know, it is very heart breaking when your loved one has a terminal illness such as Alzheimer’s and you want to provide the best possible so that when the time comes that your loved one passes away, at least your loved one got his or her wishes.

I urge you to please read this blog entry word for word.

According to the St. Petersburg Times article written by none other than Drew Harwell (who, by the way, wrote the article on how dangerous the Interstate 375 ramp is), Carol Kinnear owned a multi-million dollar home out on Clearwater Beach where she wanted to live out her last days. After all, when the home that you lived in happens to be the home you grew up in or lived there a long time, it takes on a special meaning not only for you but for your relatives as well.

However, Carol’s relatives wanted to make sure that the estate was preserved. As such, papers were filed for a member of the family to become Carol’s legal guardian; however, once the court approved the guardianship the legal guardian for Carol was not any of her relatives – instead, it turned out to be total strangers. According to the Times article, Carol’s legal guardian – a professional legal guardian – had her removed from her home and taken to a facility, all against Carol’s wishes. To make matters worse, Carol’s legal guardian even barred her relatives from even seeing her.

Unfortunately, Florida’s guardianship laws do allow for legalized robbery and exploitation of an elderly or disabled person, especially when a professional legal guardian comes into play. Learning back from my days when I was going for my Legal Assisting degree at Hillsborough Community College, I learned the process of guardianship in a class called Wills, Trusts and Probate.

A guardianship starts when the papers are filed in the Probate Court starting with a petition to the court explaining why a person should have a legal guardian. Next, a committee of experts examines the person that is the subject of guardianship – called a ward – and reports back to the court with a recommendation as to whether guardianship is recommended and if that is the case, who the legal guardian should be.

The process of getting someone declared legally incompetent from what I understand is rather very easy. Too easy, in my opinion. An attorney can intervene during the process and recommend that a professional guardian be appointed, against the wishes of the ward and his or her family. This is where guardianship can get ugly here.

Once the ward is declared incompetent and a guardian is appointed, practically all of the ward’s civil liberties are completely stripped: The right to vote, the ability to hold a driver’s license, the ability to own property, and so on. If a professional guardian as in the case of Carol Kinnear comes into play, it means that a total stranger is in charge of everything.

During a guardianship, papers are required to be filed with the court including an accounting of the assets of the ward both initially and every year. Moreover, if a professional guardian is involved the guardian has to be bonded as well. Unfortunately, papers can be falsified while at the same time a professional guardian is out there misusing the assets of the ward. To make matters worse, a professional guardian can also have the ward committed to an institution, all against the family’s wishes.

This is what I see: A professional guardian who is supposed to look after the best interest of his or her ward actually misappropriates the ward’s assets to the professional guardian’s own benefit, such as paying the monthly mortgage among other things. Next, the professional guardian has the ward committed to an institution at some unknown place and at the same time keeps the ward’s relatives away; who knows what kind of treatment the ward is getting: Abuse? Neglect?

In short, guardianship – especially when a total stranger is appointed as a professional guardian – is actually a license granted by the court to steal a ward’s assets and to have the ward locked away and put out of sight of the ward’s immediate family. Here in Pinellas County from what I understand, there is little to no oversight of professional guardians when engaged in their duties.

However, there are alternatives to guardianship out there that may be a better choice for your loved one. I won't get into any detail here, but the best way to explore these alternatives is to discuss them with your attorney.

Unfortunately, Florida’s guardianship laws make it easier than you think to get someone declared incompetent. Once you get involved with guardianship, it is essentially permanent and when a total stranger is in complete charge of your loved one’s affairs, the end result can be disastrous.