An estimated 1.3 million people in the United States are under guardianship in this country, with another person appointed to look after their finances and physical and emotional well-being. About 85% of those under guardianship are over the age of 65. While most guardians are conscientious, some take advantage of their vulnerable wards.
Now, a new law in Florida aims to tighten rules regarding guardianship and increase protections for wards. The bills, sponsored by Rep. Colleen Burton of Polk County and State Senate Majority Leader Kathleen Passidomo of Lee County require that:
Courts consider potential disqualifications for guardians;
Courts provide detailed reasons for why they should appoint a specific guardian, including the guardian's relationship to the ward, whether the guardian is a professional guardian, and the other guardianship relationships currently in effect;
Courts grant permission before guardians may sign “do not resuscitate” orders and note any preexisting directives in the initial guardianship plan;
Guardians report detailed information to the court regarding payments received for services rendered to or on behalf of the ward;
The annual guardianship plan for each ward must contain a list of preexisting orders not to resuscitate or any other advance directives;
Guardians may not pay or receive payment in return for referring or engaging in a transaction for goods or services on behalf of a ward;
Guardians may not have financial conflicts of interest with their ward, the presiding judge, the examining committee, the attorney for the ward, or any court employee involved in the guardianship process;
Guardians may not petition the court for assignment to a case unless they are related to the person in care.
See §§ 744.312, 334, 363, 367, 441, 446. Fla. Stat. (2020). The legislature aimed the new rules to increase accountability, reduce conflicts of interest for guardians, and prevent professional guardians from taking advantage of seniors and disabled individuals.
The legislature moved to enact the new measures in part due to recent investigative reports from Spectrum News. The year-long investigation began with the death of Steven Stryker, a 74-year-old Brevard, Florida man who died at a Tampa hospital while in the care of a professional guardian, Rebecca Fierle. Fierle, who served as guardian for more than 450 seniors in 13 counties, signed a “do not resuscitate” order for Stryker against his wishes and family wishes. Fierle is also under investigation for mishandling her wards' assets and accepting payments from AdventHealth for more than $4 million without disclosing them to the court.
But investigations involving guardians are nothing new in the state of Florida. In 2019, a group of adult children sued Florida's governor and attorney general, alleging that court-appointed guardians are stealing their parents' retirement funds, jewelry, real estate, social security payments, and other assets. Florida's new guardian restrictions should help protect vulnerable, incapacitated residents.
If you have questions about the guardianship process and how it works, contact us. We can help you or a loved one through a stressful guardianship process.