Preventing Elder Abuse in Florida Guardianships
Elder abuse is an all-too-common problem in Florida. The state’s most vulnerable residents are frequently the victims of unscrupulous strangers, caregivers, and even family members who take advantage of the person’s declining mental and physical condition. In theory, Florida law protects these individuals through the appointment of a guardian–either a close relative or a trained fiduciary authorized to make financial and care decisions for a disabled person.
But guardianships often make a bad situation worse. In recent years there have been mounting stories of guardianships abusing their position. In 2015, for instance, the Sun-Sentinel in Broward County published a series of articles that found “case after case of court-appointed guardians tapping their clients’ life savings and in some cases, forcing them from their homes to cover costs for services.” More recently Richard Black, the director of an organization dedicated to documenting and fighting guardianship abuse, told The Root that he’s assessed court records for the past four years and discovered “the average annual cost of fraudulent guardianships is $250,000 per family.”
Trump Signs Law Expanding Federal Role in Policing Elder Abuse
In response to these and other reports, President Donald J. Trump recently signed into law S. 178, the “Elder Abuse and Prosecution Act,” a bipartisan bill that gives the federal government the necessary resources to investigate and prosecute individuals who financially exploit the elderly. With respect to guardianships, S. 178 directs the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to award grants to the Florida Supreme Court and other state supreme courts “for the purpose of assessing and improving adult guardianship and conservatorship proceedings.” In addition, the Attorney General of the United States is directed to publish “best practices for improving guardianship proceedings and model legislation relating to guardianship proceedings for the purpose of preventing elder abuse.”
The U.S. Department of Justice must also designate at least one prosecutor in every federal judicial district–there are three in Florida–to handle cases involving elder abuse. Federal prosecutors must also work with local law enforcement to “establish best practices for the voluntary collection of government data focused on elder abuse.” Finally, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is now expected to properly train its agents in detecting “crimes against the elderly.”
Estate Planning Now Can Prevent Elder Abuse Later
No single law, of course, will stop the exploitation of Florida’s elder population. In most cases the best way to prevent abuse is to act before it starts. Proper estate planning can help. Before you find yourself in a situation where a guardianship may be necessary, you should have a signed power of attorney and other documents, such as a trust, ensuring that any decisions regarding your assets and personal care are made by people you trust.
“Fix Florida’s elder guardianship program,” The Sun-Sentinel, April 10, 2015.
Monique Judge, “Is the Adult Guardianship and Probate Court System Being Used to Exploit Elderly People for Profit?,” The Root, Oct. 10, 2017.
United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary, “Elder Abuse Prevention and Prosecution Act”, Sen. Rept. 115-9, March 23 2017.