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Professional Guardians Criticized by Florida Lawmakers

Nursing home abuse is a serious problem in Florida, as shown the most recent example of a 70-year-old man with dementia who was pinned to a bed by a nurse in Sumter County. However, physical abuse is not the only form of elder abuse, and nursing home attendants are not the only caretakers who can abuse their power. In Florida, professional guardians can help an incapacitated individual manage their affairs–or turn their lives upside-down.

Professional Guardianship can Lead to Abuse

Consider the case of one Boynton Beach man a senior citizen, who got married to a retired school teacher he met through a dating website. When the former army colonel suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car crash, a court found him incapacitated and appointed a professional guardian. The guardian promptly annulled his marriage and banned his wife from ever seeing him again, and a judge threatened his wife with arrest. His wife eventually persevered–but not before the professional guardian compounded trauma upon trauma.

That Boynton Beach couple wasn’t alone. An 89-year-old man woke up in Florida after a fall, and before long the courts appointed a “friend” who petitioned to be his guardian. Years later, the man is living on his own, cooking and cleaning for himself–but the guardian is still in his life. The guardian sold some of his possessions, including his car, and barred him from obtaining information about his finances. Recently, his guardian requested that the man’s right to a driver’s license be removed, and a judge granted it.

Under Florida law, anyone who claims to be “interested” in an allegedly incapacitated individual’s welfare can ask the court to be appointed–without consent–as a guardian. The guardians are paid, sometimes to the order of thousands per month, and can liquidate life insurance policies. Very often, the guardian has an attorney, but the elderly individual, under threat of guardianship and who may need one, does not.

Changes to Florida Law

Bills are on the way to reform the current atmosphere in Florida. Senate Bill 1226, up for consideration this spring, would expand the grasp of Florida’s Department of Elder Affairs, which oversees public guardians, to reach and regulate so-called “professional” guardians as well. The senator advocating for the bill said of these professional guardians: “Somebody has found a cottage industry and they are not targeting the poor people.” To break up the industry, the new office could set qualifications and training standards, and even investigate complaints against guardians and apply discipline.

Without the new department, commenters have noted, a judge, an attorney, and a guardian can decide to take the estate of an elderly person. However, there are more measures potentially coming as well. House Bill 5, produced in consultation with elder law attorneys across Florida, would discourage the current “fast-track” system and instead encourage courts to deliberate on the decision of a guardianship appointment through a hearing.

If you or a loved one has been appointed a guardian, make sure their voice is heard. Contact Fort Lauderdale personal injury attorney Scott Newmark today for a consultation and advice on how to prevent and handle potential elder abuse.

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