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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Crackdown on Abuse of Guardianships in Florida

How is Florida trying to protect its most vulnerable seniors?

The Sunshine State, where so many Americans look forward to spending their retirement years, has a disportionately large elderly population. Unfortunately, along with the outsized senior population comes a larger than average proportion of guardianships and, regrettably, the fraud that sometimes accompanies them. Not only does Florida have the largest population over the age of 65 in the country, but thanks in large part to Alzheimer's, dementia and other debilitating mental or physical ailments among the elder population, there are 50,000 people who have been declared "wards" of court-supervised guardianships in the state. A breathtaking amount of wards' assets-- nearly $4 billion -- is under the control of guardians. If you have any questions about whether a guardianship may be needed, or if you suspect fraud involving a loved one's care, you should contact an attorney who has the skills and knowledge to assist you in taking appropriate action.

Guardianship involves a person appointed by a court to manage the legal affairs of a person who has been determined to be incapacitated. While a guardian can be a friend or family member, the court will often appoint a professional guardian when the incapacitated person doesn't have a family member who is able or willing to take on the serious and complex duty of managing that person's affairs, or sometimes when the incapacitated person's family members cannot agree on who should be the guardian. Most guardians are reliable and caring and take their duties very seriously, but when appointed guardians are dishonest, it is all too easy for them to take advantage, financially and otherwise, of the individuals they are charged to protect. In an attempt to crack down on those who defraud Florida's most vulnerable citizens, the Florida Legislature enacted a reform bill this past March.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Florida State Guardianship Association (FSGA), which met in Fort Lauderdale for its 2016 Annual Conference, discussed the recently passed legislation in terms of guardianship audits performed by Sharon Bock, the Clerk & Comptroller in Palm Beach County for the past 25 years. Bock pointed out that though she has always had the statutory obligation to monitor guardianships' financial information, in 2013 her responsibility was enhanced when she was given the ability "to actually investigate and audit." That privilege, however, did not extend to clerks in all parts of Florida. Therefore, tragically, it was not uncommon for professional guardians who were abusing their power to simply relocate to another county where enhanced audits were not being performed so they could avoid being investigated.

Happily, now the Florida Clerks of Court are collaborating with the Department of Elder Affairs to fill in the gaps in the old laws. By partnering with the state, Bock points out, the outcome of investigations and audits will be centrally reported. This will help to make it impossible for those out to commit fraud to cover their tracks by moving to other counties within the state.


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