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Florida: Herald-Tribune Editorial – County should fund Guardian’s Monitor

Sarasota Herald-Tribune Sarasota Herald-Tribune

From Sarasota’s Herald-Tribune Editorial – County should fund Guardian’s Monitor.  “Monitor would be the eyes and ears of the court.

Florida’s adult-guardianship system will be improved by the Legislature’s passage of House Bill 5.

That law, filed by Rep. Kathleen Passidomo — a Republican from Naples — and signed by Gov. Rick Scott, will help protect incapacitated adults from exploitation or abuse. It tightens guardianship law, clarifies the duties of state-appointed guardians, includes criminal penalties for wrongdoing and requires more notice of emergency, temporary guardianship proceedings.

But laws are only as good as their oversight and enforcement and, too often, large caseloads make it difficult for the ultimate enforcers in the process — judges — to routinely assess cases or dig deeply into complaints from wards or their families.

Charles Williams, the circuit judge who handles adult guardianships in the probate courts for Manatee and Sarasota counties, understands the challenges.

That understanding is why Judge Williams and court administrator Walt Smith recently proposed that Sarasota County provide the funding to hire a guardianship monitor. This person would, Williams said, serve as “the eyes and ears of the court,” investigating complaints and informing the judge about the findings. The monitor would, Williams told us, help him achieve another goal — to create a standard process for regularly reviewing guardianship cases, regardless of whether real or perceived problems have been cited.

As Williams noted, guardianship cases are not static — the financial, physical and emotional states of wards change, as do their needs. Of course, the guardians themselves are charged with acting in the best interests of the wards, but the monitor would provide independent evaluations and assessments directly to the judge. This level of scrutiny is important, since guardianship cases can be difficult for courts to sort out because of conflicting evidence, family feuds and ambiguity about a ward’s mental state.

Williams added, and we have written previously, that many guardians work hard and act selflessly to serve the best interests of people who cannot care for themselves. But the stakes in these cases are high and the number of them has increased with a growing, aging population and the prevalence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

There are, sadly, all too many ways to exploit the elderly, from complex investment scams to simple theft. Those are among the reasons that guardianship laws were created. But when guardianships themselves become a form of abuse — draining elders’ crucial financial assets in the twilight years — it’s time for reforms.

In previous editorials, we cited the need to strengthen independent oversight. The proposal by Williams, one of the 12th Judicial Circuit’s best judges, and Smith, the longtime administrator, would help Sarasota County and the courts provide stronger monitoring at a reasonable annual cost (estimated at $40,000).

We hope the County Commission approves this modest request, as part of its budget, because it has the potential to assist elders and their families, and head off costly litigation.

Furthermore, the idea is consistent with the commission’s endorsement of a community-based effort to gain an official “Age Friendly Community” designation for Sarasota County. Ensuring that the court system has adequate resources to monitor guardianships would be a positive development, not only for elderly people who have become wards of that state but for their children and the community.

If the position in Sarasota is funded and its implementation successful, it could serve as a model for other counties — Manatee in particular. (Smith said he and Williams missed the budget-request deadline in Manatee, but would consider making a proposal next year.)

The fact that Williams is the circuit’s chief judge, and handles guardianships and probate in both counties, places him in an ideal position to assess outcomes and provide accountability.

We hope Sarasota County funds the guardianship-monitor position and, assuming that it succeeds, other counties follow suit.