Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade courts adopt new system for appointing guardians

Dr. Sam Sugar and his wife, Judy, who is holding a photo of her late mother.
Dr. Sam Sugar and his wife, Judy, who is holding a photo of her late mother. For the Miami Herald

With lawmakers in Tallahassee looking to overhaul Florida’s guardianship laws, the Miami-Dade court system has implemented a new system for appointing professionals to oversee the affairs of people who have been deemed incapacitated.

Miami-Dade’s probate court this week began operating a “registry” system — a rotation of appointments that advocates say takes favoritism out of how judges select guardians.

For now, 11 professional guardians from South Florida have been approved to accept cases in Miami-Dade.

“It gives more transparency to the system,” said Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Maria Korvick, the administrative judge over the probate division.

Lawmakers in Tallahassee are considering a similar measure that would require courts across Florida to do the same.

The proposal in the House, however, was amended Thursday to give judges more flexibility, instead “encouraging” courts to use a rotation system, according to state Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami.

Under the revised language, courts choosing not to use a rotation would be required to “make specific findings of fact listing why the particular person was selected by the court as guardian.”

Rodríguez said the change was made because a rotation wouldn’t have worked in some counties.

“Some counties are too small for a rotation,” Rodríguez said. “They don't have enough professional guardians.”

The House Judiciary Committee gave its unanimous support to the revised proposal (HB 5) Thursday.

In addition to encouraging a rotating system of guardians, HB 5 prohibits the abuse, exploitation and neglect of wards, and speeds up the process for terminating a guardianship for someone who is no longer incapacitated.

The Senate is also considering a proposal to revamp the state’s guardianship system (SB 318). That bill requires a rotation.

The issue of abuse by guardians has been well-chronicled in recent years as the number of elders has boomed. According to the Department of Elder Affairs, there are over 400 professional guardians — up from just 10 several years ago.

In Florida, relatives, nursing homes and other institutions can petition the court system to have someone declared incapacitated.

A probate judge appoints a three-member panel, consisting of medical personnel, to examine the person. If the person is declared incapacitated — and no relative is deemed appropriate to oversee his or her affairs — then a judge appoints a professional guardian.

The guardians, under court supervision, oversee the ward’s financial, medical and legal matters.

In Miami-Dade, many wards who are poor and have little or no family get guardians through the taxpayer-funded Public Guardianship Program. The new registry is for wards who do not qualify for that program.

The registry system has been in the works for months under a plan to modernize the probate courts. Chief Judge Bertila Soto signed it into effect Monday.

Miami-Dade‘s measure drew kudos from Aventura’s Sam Sugar, the head of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship. He has been fighting for reform since engaging in a long battle over what he says is abuse by the court system involving his incapacitated mother-in-law.

“This is a very very important step forward for citizens of Florida,” Sugar said.

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