*This story was corrected on Oct. 30, 2018
her father’s brush with involuntary adult guardianship last year,
Hillary Hogue has been on a mission to stop what she said is corruption
in the 20th Judicial Circuit’s guardian and probate court.
lives in Naples, but she said she takes trips around the five counties
of the circuit to search for victims of abusive guardianships.
is the perfect place for such crimes as Florida is a retirement
capital,” Hogue said. “This has become an industry that is fueled by
Guardianship reform has been a hot topic across
the nation in the last few years, and Florida recently made changes to
give the state greater oversight of the system.
As a result, a
first-of-its kind administrative hearing in Palm Beach County may bar a
guardian from practicing after the Office of Public and Professional
Guardians (OPPG), along with the Clerk of Court Inspector General,
conducted an investigation into her practices. The Palm Beach Post
reported the OPPG is seeking sanctions against guardian Betsy Savitt
which have the potential to bar her from practicing in the county and
may include repayment of up to $190,000 in guardianship fees.
believes the problem is just as bad in Southwest Florida and stated
attorneys and judges are complicit in guardians’ attempts to control the
lives of their elderly wards and deplete their savings.
Sara Miles, spokesperson for the 20th Judicial Circuit, which includes
Charlotte County, said the allegations of corruption are unfounded and
“Our judges work diligently to ensure due process and
fairness,” Miles said. “The Legislature has recently enacted new
guidelines and requirements and a complaint procedure for people to use
as a means of maintaining checks on guardians.”
guardianship cases have been filed in Charlotte County in 2018 so far,
but no one tracks how many adults are actually under the care of a
guardian. The clerk of court closes the cases once a guardian has been
appointed, according to Clerk Roger Eaton. In Sarasota County, 111
guardianship cases have been filed since Jan. 1.
How guardianship works
guardianship happens when the court finds an individual’s ability to
make decisions is so impaired that it gives the right to make those
decisions to another person. According to Florida law, guardianship is
only warranted when no less restrictive alternative is available, such
as durable power of attorney, trust, health care surrogate or proxy, or
any other form of pre-need directive.
Anyone can file a petition
to find an individual incapacitated and have a guardian appointed.
Sometimes family is unable to care for an individual, or family members
who can’t agree on a loved one’s care may go to the court for a third
party decision. However, the petition could be filed by anyone who
claims the individual is unable to care for themselves.
There are three types of guardians: family, public, and professional.
the name, family guardians aren’t necessarily performing guardianship
services for a parent or grandparent. ‘Family guardian’ simply
designates a guardian with three or fewer wards under their care.
Professional guardians have more than three wards, and guardianship is
Gina Rossi, executive director for the Florida
State Guardianship Association, said some professional guardians enter
the field after becoming the guardian for a family member, while others
come through social work or finance fields.
“If you want to become
a professional guardian you have to take a 40-hour, in-person course,”
she said. “After that, there’s an extensive background check with
includes FBI fingerprinting, an expansive credit check, and the Florida
guardianship examination. Then if you pass, you are bonded, and you take
all that information to the Office of Public and Professional
According to Ashley Chambers, spokesperson for the
Department of Elder Affairs which houses the Office of Public and
Professional Guardians (OPPG), the state has the least control over
professional guardians, who are paid out of the ward’s assets. Until
recently, the guardianship office in the Department of Elder Affairs was
called the Statewide Public Guardianship Office.
Now, the OPPG
can discipline professional guardians, but their interaction is still
limited. While professional guardians register with the OPPG, they
conduct their business on their own.
“We have no oversight over
professional guardians,” Chambers said. “The only thing we have to do
with professional guardians is we do some of their training and keep a
In fiscal year 2016-2017, there were approximately 550 professional guardians registered with the OPPG.
guardians, who are typically professional guardians who agree to take
on guardianship cases for indigent persons, provided services for more
than 3,000 indigent wards in fiscal year 2016-2017.
2016, facing news reports and personal accounts of guardians taking
advantage of the elderly, the Florida state Legislature granted the OPPG
statutory power to investigate and discipline professional guardians,
changing the name of the Statewide Public Guardianship Office to the
Office of Public and Professional Guardians.
“That was the huge
change,” Chambers said. “It completely changed the scope of the office.
In 2016, the law was signed to give us authority to investigate all the
accusations against certain professional guardians. The Legislature
acted in order to give us a disciplinary role.”
toll-free hotline was developed to receive complaints made against
registered professional guardians, as well as a website to submit
complaints online. As of December 2017, the OPPG had received more than
80 legally sufficient complaints against registered professional
guardians. The complaints are investigated by the Clerks’ Statewide
Investigations Alliance, and the findings are turned over to the
Department of Elder Affairs to decide on next steps.
“There is a
range,” Chambers said. “It can be something like a letter of concern,
like, ‘We’ve found x, y, and z. This is a letter of concern. It looks
bad. It looks like you might not know the procedure.’ And then the
higher end of it is an administrative complaint.”
administrative complaint, the OPPG could seek anything from restitution
for the victim up to revocation of a guardian’s registration, so they
can no longer practice.
According to Gina Rossi, most guardians
were in favor of the new process and the Florida State Guardianship
Association even helped the OPPG write the code of conduct for
“The standards, generally speaking, raised the
profession of guardianship and most guardians, that’s what they want,”
she said. “They want the work they do to be reflected in a standard of
practice. Guardians felt like this is what they’ve been doing all along,
but now it’s part of the law.”
Too little, too late?
the new standards and complaint process, Hogue and others say they felt
helpless when their loved ones were placed in guardianship, and some
are still fighting the system even after a loved one’s death.
Gorda resident Cristi Kessler is still involved in litigation in her
father’s guardianship case in Collier County, even though he passed away
last year. Kessler has been unable to get back a special medical bed
for her veteran husband’s throat cancer, which she says has been locked
down with her father’s property. The bed, intended to help her husband
breathe at night, had been loaned to her father when they learned he was
sleeping on a 40-year-old mattress.
“This is nothing more than
abuse by a probate guardian to a veteran who served his country
honorably and lovingly cared for his father-in-law,” she said.
Charlotte County woman’s mother-in-law died under the care of a
guardian who denied family’s wishes, documented in emails in the court
file. Though she declined to share her story, court documents record a
disagreement over whether the ward should have been placed in a stroke
center, rather than the hospice care the guardian chose.
Hogue’s situation, she said every 20-minute conversation with her
father’s guardian or court appointed attorney would rack up unreasonable
bills. Her sister filed the initial petition alleging their father was
incapacitated, while Hogue states that petition was full of lies. She
says her father never had the opportunity to defend himself, but was
instead placed under an emergency temporary guardianship until he could
be evaluated for competency.
After the petition was filed, three examiners evaluated Mr. Hogue, one of whom was a gynecologist.
said while that might seem strange, it’s common for examiners to come
from a variety of backgrounds, and all court-appointed examiners receive
special training to evaluate competency. Members of the examining
committee must receive a minimum of four hours training, per Florida
Ultimately, a professional guardian was not appointed,
though Hogue claims both the temporary guardian and her father’s
court-appointed attorney pushed for one. Instead, Hogue and her sister
agreed to an order which allows Mr. Hogue to live with Hillary while his
accountant serves as his power of attorney.
Now, several months
after the process has ended, her father is still afraid to leave the
house, and her young son fears the “guardianship police” will come take
his grandfather away. Still, she considers herself lucky her father got
out so easy.
A guardian’s perspective
Gina Rossi said while
she doesn’t have knowledge of specific cases, most guardians take their
jobs very seriously, and few people realize the amount of scrutiny they
are under. Any medical decisions are discussed with family, doctors,
nurses, and hospital ethics teams — “everybody you would listen to if it
was somebody in your family,” she said.
When it comes to money,
guardians must submit detailed financial reports to the court on a
yearly basis, which are closely audited by the clerks of court. People
might think of guardians as rogue individuals taking control of a ward’s
life, Rossi said, but none of the decisions made by a guardian are made
in a vacuum.
“A guardian cannot just come in and spend all your
money,” she said. “I guess there’s always cases of people being really
bad people, but generally speaking the system is not set up so that’s
easy to do. You’re literally stealing in front of a judge. That takes a
lot of nerve.”
After a ward’s death, Rossi said sorting out the property can be a lengthy process due to the court overseeing the accounting.
case is so different,” she said. “Occasionally, someone will be like,
‘Oh no, that’s my ring, my mom promised it to me,’ but the guardian
would not be in a position to give it away.”
In addition to
education and networking for guardians, the Florida State Guardianship
Association works to educate the public on alternatives to guardianship
and how to avoid it.
“We would just encourage people to be
educated about guardianship to find out exactly what it is and make sure
that all your documents are in place, that you’ve done the best to care
for yourself so you won’t need a guardianship,” Rossi said.
She also wants people to know guardians aren’t villains.
know so many guardians who have totally changed people’s life, took
them from a terrible situation to a safe situation where they had a
great quality of life,” she said.
Since creating the complaint
investigation process, the state has received 126 guardianship
complaints across the state. The administrative complaint against Betsy
Savitt is the only one yet to be filed, though Chambers said there may
be others going that direction. However, for the five complaints
involving professional guardians in Charlotte and Sarasota counties, no
disciplinary action was warranted based on the investigate findings,
according to the OPPG.
“As a department, if you ever hear of any
requests for help from a constituent complaining for something that is
putting an elder in jeopardy, that concerns us,” she said. “Now that we
have the authority to investigate complaints when they come in, we take
that seriously because protecting vulnerable adults is of the utmost
priority for the department.”
*In a previous version of this
story, the Office of Public and Professional Guardians was incorrectly
referred to as the Office of Public and Private Guardianship.
Full Article & Source:
A better system? Despite change, some still see elderly guardianship problems