But in an administrative order handed down last month, Palm Beach County’s chief judge attempts to turn this world of rampant self-dealing inside out. At the same time, he addresses the substantive complaints against controversial professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt — the wife of Circuit Judge Martin Colin.
Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath’s administrative order on Oct. 26 prohibits — through an application process — Savitt’s practice of taking thousands of dollars from incapacitated seniors as so-called retainers before getting approval from a judge.
The Palm Beach Post in its series, Guardianships: A Broken Trust, could find no other guardian save for Savitt who takes money before judicial approval. The chief judge said the stories contributed to his decision to overhaul the guardianship system.
Colbath’s overhaul comes as the state Legislature and the Florida Supreme Court act to address concerns about unethical guardians preying on seniors and other incapacitated adults. And it comes, as promised, after Colbath’s initial reforms in February following The Post’s series.
|Palm Beach Circuit Judge Martin Colin|
Taking out bad guardians
The damage a rogue professional guardian can do is heart-wrenching.
Families have told The Post how seniors were taken from their homes secretly by guardians and placed in assisted living facilities. There were cases where relatives of the senior were banned from seeing their loved ones under false pretenses. Guardians also got marriages annulled and persuaded the court to ignore long-established living wills. The chief judge’s far-reaching order for the first time sets down a means to remove bad guardians from the court’s newly established registry.
“It is a standard policy in the circuit to have language in our applications/contracts which allow for the removal of the professional if there is a violation of a policy,” Colbath told The Post.
The order also addresses favoritism and conflict of interest and insists the profession give back to the community.
But much of the meat of Colbath’s reforms can be found on the new nine-page application guardians must complete if they want to get on the county registry.
It asks specifically if the guardian has any relationship through “blood, marriage, financial or occupational to any person or service providers in the guardianship arena or associated with any guardianship proceedings in Palm Beach County.”
After The Post found that the life savings of incapacitated seniors flowed in the home of Judge Colin via his wife’s guardianship work, the chief judge in February moved Colin out of the Probate & Guardianship Division. Colin then announced his retirement effective Dec. 31.
He also ordered all of Savitt’s cases transferred to the North County Courthouse out of concerns of favoritism outlined in The Post’s stories.
|Professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt|
“The group looked at block billing and advance fees,” he said. “The group determined that uniformity and a standard of practice would make for a more efficient system.”
The application asks guardians if they ever filed for bankruptcy or been subject to a foreclosure action or default on a student loan and to explain.
Savitt was under a judgment of foreclosure for several months before she paid it off with $308,000 in cash, days before her home was to be auctioned in March 2015. In two of her guardianships, parties involved have questioned in court whether she paid off the mortgage with her wards’ money. No judge has decided whether those accusations are true.
Savitt still works as a professional guardian.
The judge’s wife responded to Colbath’s order in an email to The Post: “This new Administrative Order appears to be an effort to better the Professional Guardian system in Palm Beach County, which I applaud. Those of your frequent sources who readily complain about professional guardians and the courts will not be happy with the good intentions of this Order.”
Her attorney, Ellen Morris, could not be reached for comment, but the lawyer has vigorously defended the judge’s wife — including the taking of fees prior to judicial approval.
Under the order, professional guardians must annually apply for appointment to the registry and satisfy the requirements set by the state. They must agree to standards in the application, including billing procedures. And they must agree to accept a pro bono case each year, offering their services free of charge. (Click to Continue)
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Chief judge bans Savitt’s billing practices in guardianship overhaul