It’s an uncomfortable thing when programs and processes designed to protect an individual’s interests are used by some to harm those people instead. One clear example of this involves the guardianship process in Florida – a court-managed process designed to ensure that individuals who cannot protect their own interests have a suitable and trustworthy guardian appointed to act on their behalf. In a perfect world, a process like this would work to the benefit of those it is designed to protect. As we all know, however, this is anything but a perfect world.
In the state of Florida, as in other states across the United States, there have always been horror stories about how unfaithful guardians engaged in one form of fraud or another, ultimately to the detriment of those they were charged with protecting. Those stories always shock our collective sensibilities, and can even lead us to become jaded in our views about society at large. In our state, this problem has been a growing phenomenon – largely due to the state’s high population of retirees over the age of 65. Some have even taken to referring to this exploitation of our state’s elders as the “crime of the 21st century.”
Where There’s Money…
This is not a problem that should have come as a surprise to anyone, of course. The guardianship system has long been vulnerable to abuse, since so much of its efforts revolve around concerns about money. Of necessity, the system involves a variety of relationships that all end up with ties to the senior’s accumulated assets in one way or another. Without the ward having a say in how his or her assets are used, it often seems that there are few limits placed on the available services that are somehow seen as necessary for securing that person’s best interests.
The end result has been that many guardianships have devolved into situations where the aged ward’s estate was consumed by the costs associated with medical experts who are asked to render complex opinions about the senior’s health status, costs related to services provided by various attorneys, court costs, and the fees paid to the guardians. Seniors seldom have an opportunity to request that these things be done for them, which means that their savings are tapped into without them having any say in the process.
By some accounts, there is as much as $270 billion in assets tied to guardianship programs around the country. That’s $270 million of wealth that has been left vulnerable to abuse and waste – much of it in jurisdictions with little real oversight and few protections to ensure that incapacitated seniors and other wards of the state do not lose their savings to fraud and incompetence. And while some counties in Florida have taken steps to try to minimize the possibility of fraud and abuse, those efforts have helped only a small portion of the seniors who need it.
A New Pilot Program Offers Hope
That may soon change, however. In the wake of the successes enjoyed by counties like Palm Beach County – which has been using professional investigators and auditors to thwart instances of guardianship fraud, state officials are taking action in an even more comprehensive way. The state’s Elder Affairs Secretary, Sam Verghese, recently made an announcement alongside Palm Beach County Clerk Sharon Bock that launched a new pilot program designed to better investigate how state wards’ assets are being handled. This important announcement was made in Fort Lauderdale, at the annual gathering for the Florida State Guardianship Association.
The new program is designed to close off avenues that greedy individuals have previously used to leverage guardianships for their own profit and advantage. As currently envisioned, there will be a hotline available so that anyone who believes that a guardianship is being used in a fraudulent or wasteful way can make a complaint. Investigators will then place that guardianship under scrutiny and determine how the guardians are managing the money.
While the new program offers no path to doing away with all guardianship fraud and abuse in any sort of immediate way, it does at least provide a new way for suspected instances of abuse to be brought to the government’s attention and promptly investigated. That is certainly something that everyone should be able to cheer.
Why it Matters
Guardianship in the state of Florida has been a controversial issue for many years, with many examples in which seniors and others have been stripped of their rights to make their own decisions and subsequently fallen prey to unscrupulous guardians appointed by the state’s courts. Other seniors have been declared incompetent in Florida, only to be later found competent by judges in other states. Clearly, this new program is a necessary first step in the process toward providing seniors and all wards of the state with the protections they deserve as citizens.
The fact is that elder abuse of any kind is something that cannot and must not be ignored by public officials or society as a whole. Seniors remain among the most vulnerable in our communities, with special needs that often defy simple solutions. And while the guardianship system is an important part of the effort to ensure that our elderly citizens are protected, there must also be safeguards in place to prevent that system from becoming a tool for abuse. We should all hope that this new program offers an important first step toward a day when elder abuse is no longer a threat to our senior community.
Until that time, however, firms like Robert Kulas Attorneys at Law will continue to fight on behalf of seniors and their families to ensure that they are safe from those who would defraud or otherwise abuse them. Our experience in elder law is second to none, and our legal team will work with you to help resolve your issues and protect your interests. Give us a call at (772) 398-0720 or contact us online today to find out how we can help you with all of your elder law and estate planning needs.