By Kate Payne
A slate of changes to Florida’s guardianship law is heading to the governor’s desk. The updates legislators want are meant to protect some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, but critics worry they’re missing the mark.
Florida’s guardianship laws outline how someone is deemed legally incapable of handling their own affairs. Ultimately, finances and end of life issues can all be overseen by a guardian. Here’s St. Petersburg Democrat Ben Diamond explaining how Floridians get there.
“The first thing that happens is the court appoints an examining committee of three people to go out and examine the alleged incapacitated person,” Diamond said.
The board then submits a report outlining the situation and what they think should be done. But a recent case found if board members don’t present the report in person, it’s considered hearsay. Which means it can’t count as evidence. Diamond is sponsoring the bill in the House, and says the situation needs to be fixed.
“That is creating a lot of confusion and burden on our guardianship courts,” Diamond said.
Naples Republican Kathleen Passidomo is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, and says the courts would grind to a halt if board members had to attend every hearing.
“If every time a guardianship is established, the three individuals have to appear in court, it will cost a fortune. And basically paid for by the ward,” Passidomo said. “So what we wanted to do is only require attendance by the three individuals if there’s a problem.”
And her plan creates a process for the courts to use the reports as evidence. The bill also changes how an incapacitated person can get a divorce.
“Should [guardians] be allowed to move for divorce when neither individual has asked for it?”
“This is the only place in the law where an individual cannot file for a dissolution of marriage, or the guardian can’t file for a dissolution of marriage without the consent of the other party,” Passidomo said.
Representative Joe Geller, a Dania Beach Democrat, worries abusers could trap their partners.
“What spouse that’s abusing their incapacitated spouse is ever gonna agree?” Geller asked.
But when Orlando Republican Representative Eric Eisnaugle looks at the bill, he sees a chance for guardians to take advantage of people.
“In Florida, should a paid guardian, who has a financial interest in the relationship, should they be allowed to move for divorce when neither individual has asked for it? I would suggest to you the answer to that question should be an absolute no,” Eisnauggle said.
But Boynton Beach Democratic Representative Lori Berman says the guardian doesn’t have the final say. They simply start the court’s process, which includes….
“Appointing an independent attorney, receiving evidence of independent medical psychologists…psychological and social evaluations, personally meeting with the incapacitated person. All of those procedures are in the bill!” she said.
When Riverview Republican Ross Spano isn’t in the Florida House, he’s running a law practice. He knows the bill won’t end abuse entirely, but he says the benefits outweigh the risks.
“I would please ask you, humbly, to respect the opinions of those of us who practice in this area. And believe us when we tell you that it is necessary and the interests of the ward will in fact be protected,” Spano said.
The new divorce rule spurred a lot of debate in the House. But the Senate voted the bill forward unanimously Tuesday, with no complaints. It now heads to the governor’s desk.