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Elders Trapped By Guardianship Law

Thomas Bender
The Florida Channel
Marie Winkelman, 89, had her rights removed a year ago at the request of her stepson-in-law, and is bewildered by the idea that she no longer has access to her own finances.

 Florida's elder guardianship program is meant to help vulnerable elders.

Credit Sarasota Herald-Tribune
The Florida Channel
Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Barbara Peters Smith

But Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Barbara Peters Smith recently published a series that shows the rapidly expanding system run in Florida’s probate court system ignores the rights of some. She spoke with Health News Florida Editor Mary Shedden about the year-long investigation.

BARBARA PETERS SMITH: The series is called “The Kindness of Strangers” -- and that’s a big fear that anybody would have that instead of living with their loved ones or somebody they trust, that they would end up at the end of their lives being not just cared for by strangers but having all their decisions made by somebody who essentially doesn’t know them.

MARY SHEDDEN: These were individuals who were living independently, maybe, went to the hospital for an operation and then things spiraled out of control. They’ve lost apartments, in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars to legal fees.

SMITH: Yes, and I should say that some wards are able to live in their own homes. The (court-appointed) guardian decides what that ward can afford. When a guardian is appointed, he or she comes in and the first thing they do is have all of the mail come to them instead of the ward. Then they take over all the bank accounts. They they do an inventory and they liquidate all the assets. They sell the house, the car, everything. Then they decide how nice a place this ward can afford. Can there be home care? In some cases, there is home care, but it is not home care of the person’s choosing.

SHEDDEN: It truly is someone they’ve never known, that they don’t have relationship with, making decisions because of a family feud or because there is no one.

SMITH: The Florida statutes gives preference to families as guardians. But in 2003, there were I believe there were 23 professional guardians in the state. And now there are 440. It’s definitely a growth industry.

--Health News Florida Editor Mary Shedden is part of WUSF Public Media in Tampa. Contact Shedden at (813) 974-8636, on Twitter @MaryShedden, or email at Health News Florida receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Mary Shedden is news director at WUSF.