Florida’s sunshine, beaches and low taxes attract retirees who are happy to leave their parkas and snow shovels behind in exchange for year-round warmth and worry-free condo living. The golden years, however, can be anything but for Florida seniors who become victimized by Florida’s guardianship laws. These laws allow anyone to petition the court for guardianship over an adult, known as the ward, deemed incapable of making decisions for themselves. Some professional guardians have displaced the caretaking roles of family members — even in cases where the family members were closely involved in the day-to-day life of the ward and disputed claims of mental deterioration. Sometimes these family members were restricted from seeing their loved one or even kept in the dark about the ward’s new location. Instead of protecting vulnerable seniors, the laws have allowed unscrupulous people to take advantage of them.
Under Florida law, adult guardianship is granted when the court finds a person’s ability to make decisions for themselves is so impaired that someone else is given the right to make those decisions. The law’s intent was to warrant guardianship only when a less restrictive alternative, such as a durable power of attorney or healthcare proxy, wasn’t available. In practice, however, guardians appointed in many cases were found to have abused their power over seniors, making decisions that benefited them rather than the ward.
In 2016, the state legislature established the Office of Public and Professional Guardians in reaction to stories of abuse among the system’s approximately 550 registered guardians. But since the office has been in place, just 19 warning letters have been sent to guardians, and only one guardian has had her license revoked.
In February 2019, in response to a news team’s investigative report, Gov. Ron DeSantis decried the lack of accountability in a system that seems to offer little recourse for families faced with predatory professional guardians. These include cases where guardians moved seniors to assisted living or nursing care facilities, took control of their finances, and sold property, all while charging hourly fees for their services and isolating seniors from loved ones. Court filings also claim that at least one guardian sold a ward’s properties under market value. A guardian who lost her license in March was said to have ginned up fees with unnecessary litigation and funneled funds to relatives of wards and was even accused of trying to access a stroke victim’s trust. The same guardian was accused by the lawyers of another ward of misplacing $400,000, a claim dismissed by a judge in an earlier case.
If a loved one is the victim of predatory guardianship or has been approached or harassed by someone who claims your elderly relative needs a guardian, contact a lawyer immediately. Although the state has made positive moves toward addressing legitimate claims of abuse, little disciplinary action has been taken in the nearly three years since Florida established the Office of Public and Professional Guardians.
Frank Charles Miranda, P.A. provides knowledgeable, experienced counsel to Floridians, handling a wide range of real estate and civil litigation matters for Tampa-area clients. To discuss your matter and learn about your legal options, call our office at 813-254-2637 or contact us online.