Florida’s Dirty Little Secret – problems with Florida’s Guardianship program

With a home, a nest egg and careful planning, we can orchestrate our retirement to make sure we will live as comfortably and independently as we can for as long as we can. Then, with a little help from our family and friends, we can even extend that a little longer. That is what most of us do when we plan for our future. What we don’t plan for is when we can no longer speak for ourselves.

In Florida, it is estimated 50,000 citizens are enrolled in the guardianship program.  Mostly seniors, they are placed under the care of a professional “guardian”: someone appointed by the courts and paid out their own pocket to manage their care. These seniors, usually categorized as “incapacitated” due to dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, end up enrolled in the program because a judge decided that they were no longer fit to make decisions for themselves and, for whatever reason, there was not a family member deemed equally as capable.

Most cases start when there is a family dispute regarding care of an individual. On the outset, it makes sense a judge would appoint an independent guardian to oversee the care for someone who is incapacitated. If the family members cannot come to terms in a dispute, an unbiased individual will be responsible. However, it doesn’t take long to start to feel like the system is rigged.

Retirement funds are quickly depleted and homes are put on the market to pay for the court-required guardianship that bills for each email, phone call and visit.  Family members, who have no rights, are forced to go to court for visitation. Bearing the financial burden, and without legal representation, family members walk into court ill-equipped to navigate the legal web of the Guardianship program.

In a two-year fight to keep her mother, Marise, with her family, local Sarasotaresident, Julie Ferguson, writes on her Facebook page, “With a two and half day notice for a court hearing back in January ’13, a judge denied me a continuance for a final hearing for a corporate guardianship to take over my Mother’s finances and ‘person’.  I wasn’t given due process to protect my Mother’s wishes as designated in all legal paperwork – from her making me her Power of Attorney to having an Irrevocable House Trust.  This is common across the U.S. Lawyers declare “EMERGENCIES”, not giving family members a chance to even fight for the rights of a parent/loved one.”

She continues, “We are blindsided and then forced to hire legal counsel, when we’re already behind ‘the eight ball’. All I want – is to be able to take care of my Mom. Make sure her wishes are fulfilled by being with family who love her deeply and respect her.”

Julie’s story is not uncommon.  Lawyers, professors and doctors have all found themselves in the same situation when it came to their parents.  And one woman’s fight is for her child with cerebral palsy, who she has not seen in four years.

One has to question the bias of a system that pays for itself by deeming parties incapable or incapacitated. As we fight for the civil rights of gay Americans, immigrants and the poor, we must also remember the civil rights of our seniors.  Because if we wait too long to do something, who will speak for us when we are the ones in need?

SRQ Daily Columnist Susan Nilon is the president of Florida Talk Radio and owner of WSRQ Radio. She hosts The Nilon Report on WSRQ Sarasota1220AM/106.9FM weekdays 4pm-6pm.