Florida's Broken Guardianship System Could Finally Get Overhauled This Year

Last May, New Times published an investigation into abuse in Florida's guardianship programs. The report showed that in cases across the state, court-appointed guardians were taking advantage of the elderly and incapacitated people they were supposed to protect.

Nearly a year later, Florida's much-maligned system may finally get the overhaul it needs. A half-dozen bills have already been filed in Tallahassee, and several of them have a good shot at passing.

"No longer can anyone claim that we are making this up and it's not a statewide chronic problem," says Dr. Sam Sugar of the group Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship (AAAPG). "We have accomplished that."

See also: Florida's Guardians Often Exploit the Vulnerable Residents They're Supposed to Protect

In Florida, people deemed "incapacitated" can be stripped of their most basic rights with the stroke of a judge's pen. A court-appointed guardian is then placed in charge of their care and estate.

For some incapacitated wards, losing their rights is just the beginning. In cases of abuse, they are isolated from families, overmedicated, and physically neglected while guardians bleed their accounts dry.

Sugar, whose own family has been involved in a bitter probate court battle for many years, says AAAPG has been fighting for reform for two years.

The effort began to show results last May, when legislators passed a bill that empowered county clerks to audit guardianship cases aggressively. But Sugar says the mandate was unfunded and, therefore, ineffective.

"It resulted in zero audits," he says. "It was a terrific idea, but absent monetization, it was never going to happen."

This year, however, he says things are different. Legislators have already sponsored half a dozen bills regarding guardianship, and several have good chances of passing.

Senate Bill 318, filed by Miami-Dade Republican Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, would make it more difficult for someone to be declared incapacitated.

Another, House Bill 5, filed by Naples Republican Kathleen Passidomo, attempts to limit the powers -- and fees -- of guardians. It would also allow clerks of court to refer cases of wrongdoing for criminal prosecution.

But it is Senate Bill 1226 that could shake up the state's guardianship system. The legislation, introduced by Sen. Nancy Detert, a Republican from Venice, would make sweeping changes.

Currently, there is little remedy for family members to complain that a ward is being physically or financially abused by a guardian. Their only recourse is to complain to a probate judge.

Oftentimes, however, probate judges are friendly with the guardians they supervise. Many judges also receive campaign donations from these guardians.

Detert's bill would create a wholly new agency -- the Office of Public and Professional Guardians -- to supervise guardians.

Sugar says the law, if passed, would be "absolutely revolutionary for this state."

"For years, nobody in Tallahassee has understood that there is no mechanism at any level of the government to monitor or discipline these guardians, except the probate judge who appoints them," he says. "That's just crazy, when these guardians are handling estates worth millions of dollars."

But winning support from the state house and senate is only half of the solution, Sugar says.

"We are gratified that the legislature has answered with a roar," he says. "But no matter what laws they pass, the laws are still disregarded in probate court... The problem is that the judges are God in their chambers."

Sugar says guardianship reform will take root only when judges -- beginning with Jorge Labarga, chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court -- recognize the need for change.

"Everybody else recognizes what a fiasco this has been for the past 35 years," Sugar says.

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.