TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Imagine visiting Florida, getting sick and put under guardianship, unable to leave the state.
The court-appointed guardian sells your home up north, and even prevents your family from visiting you in the nursing home where that guardian put you.
As part of our ongoing “The Price of Protection” series, the I-Team uncovered a bill making its way through the Florida Legislature that could extend the reach and enhance the power of Florida probate judges and court-appointed guardians.
The Guardianship Jurisdiction Act would change the way Florida guardianships work when you cross state lines. It would make Florida judges' orders the law anywhere a person under a Florida guardianship goes.
Supporters say it will prevent costly legal battles over jurisdiction in cases where people have ties to multiple states.
Opponents contend it will allow judges to more easily take away the rights and property of tourists and snowbirds.
Florida guardianship process traps Georgia resident
“We were a love story. My husband was the love of my life,” said guardianship reform advocate Becky Harber.
Becky and Hershel Harber spent their lives caring for each other.
When Hershel suffered a massive stroke, Becky brought him from his home near Atlanta to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville for treatment.
“We were at the Mayo Clinic and we were sent down to Volusia. I was under the impression I was to be trained on a piece of particular equipment for my husband,” Becky said.
While at a Volusia County hospital, Hershel suffered a heart attack and his condition worsened.
“I removed my husband against medical advice and we were to go back to the Mayo Clinic. I hired my own ambulance. At that point, we were not allowed to leave,” Becky said.
The hospital contacted the Florida Department of Children and Families and alleged that Becky posed a danger to Hershel by trying to transfer him from the facility.
A DCF attorney worked with the hospital to start the process of putting Hershel under court-ordered guardianship and obtained a protective order preventing Becky from seeing her husband.
“We’re unsuspecting, we’re from out of town. We’re seniors. I was a senior myself. I never dreamed anything like this could go on,” Becky said. “I had never heard of it and I have taken care of two sets of grandparents and a 94-year-old mother and an 87-year-old mother-in-law. I had never heard of guardianship.”
Becky hired an attorney and spent more than $300,000 fighting to keep Hershel out of guardianship.
Hershel died before he made it back home.
“They actually kept my husband in the hospital a full five months. The burden was on me to get a hotel and pay expenses in your state,” Becky testified at a committee hearing in Tallahassee in early February.
“We want to protect them and bring them back”
The hearing was held to educate lawmakers about the proposed Florida Guardianship Jurisdiction Law, which would include Florida in the 46-state Uniform Guardianship Act, which creates a national system for enforcement of out-of-state guardianship orders.
Supporters say the law would reduce expensive court battles over jurisdiction, which are paid for from the funds of the person who is under guardianship, who is referred to as a “ward.”
“This would allow us to go to a Georgia judge and say ‘hey, we initiated guardianship here. They’re a ward of the state of Florida. We want to protect them and bring them back,’” said Greg Black, an elder law attorney who supports the bill.
Opponents say they are less concerned about keeping Florida residents out of guardianships in other states than they are about subjecting Florida visitors to isolation, abuse and exploitation by predatory guardians and attorneys here in Florida.
For nearly a decade, the ABC Action News I-Team has reported on how Florida’s broken system allows this type of abuse.
“It’s a Venus flytrap”
“It’s a Venus flytrap. It’s getting people in Florida, closing in and that’s it,” guardianship reform activist Doug Franks testified to lawmakers.
Franks now lives in Georgia but his mother was taken into guardianship in Pensacola.
Franks fought for years to try to get his mother out of guardianship, as guardians and attorneys spent through her assets.
Franks’ mother Ernestine was finally freed shortly before her death.
“The risk to the vacationers who come and winter in Florida is extremely real, once this is adopted,” said Rick Black, founder of the Center for Estate Administration Reform or CEAR.
He said the law gives Florida courts the power to come in and take the property of people under guardianship in other states and in other countries.
“They are continuing to promote this false narrative that this system works perfectly. It does for Florida Bar members. It does not for the public,” Black said.
Becky Harber said she can attest to that.
”I have nothing left. I don’t have my husband. I don’t have my wealth that we worked all of our lives for. They have left me penniless,” she said.
The bill has passed the Judiciary and the Children, Family and Elder Affairs committees with unanimous votes.
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