The words “court-appointed guardian” should send a chill down your spine if you’re a vulnerable senior. The U.S. system of putting court-appointed guardians in complete control of a vulnerable senior’s life is so rife with the potential for abuse and so dangerously unsupervised that it borders on a national scandal.
From time to time here at the Blog, we come across an article that fills us with a deep sense of anger and frustration. That’s how we reacted when we read this recent Washington Post expose describing one man’s descent into complete dependency on a court-appointed guardian he had never met. This woman was able to liquidate the man’s assets, sell his home, and force him into institutional care, while his extended family was left in the dark.
This article represents an urgent plea for seniors and their families to prepare well ahead of time, so that, when a medical crisis strikes, the family – not a stranger – can take charge.
A Court-Appointed Guardian Can Be One Emergency Away
As Washington Post reporter Mary Jordan writes, “Many older people are one medical emergency away from a court-appointed guardian taking control of their lives.” The article tells the story of 80-year-old Douglas Hulse of Orlando, Florida. We lack the space to relate the entire sad tale, so we’ll hit the highlights and encourage you to check out the original article for the rest of the story.
“When Douglas Hulse pulled his Ford Mustang convertible into a Florida gas station three years ago, he looked so distressed that someone called 911,” Jordan relates. “An ambulance rushed him to Orlando Health South Seminole Hospital, where doctors said he had a stroke. At 80, the retired pilot who had flown famous passengers around the country could no longer care for himself. ButHulse lived alone — as 3 out of 5 Americans in their 80s do.”
Hospital Requests a Court-Appointed Guardian
As the article explains, the origin of the guardianship law sounds well-intended. “A hospital can be liable if a patient is discharged into an unsafe environment,” says Jordan. “Because Hulse lived alone and the hospital officials saw no sign that he had family, that put them in a bind when his health didn’t improve. So they argued in court that he was no longer capable of making his own decisions and needed a guardian — a caretaker with enormous legal power.”
This raises the question, how hard did the hospital try to locate Hulse’s family? As it turns out, he had a niece and nephew in Pennsylvania. But by the time they entered the picture, the worst of the damage was done. When a judge agreed with the hospital’s assessment that Hulse had no close family and required a guardian, Hulse became a prisoner of the system.
Court-Appointed Guardians Control the Lives of 1 Million Americans
As a result of the court case, Jordan relates, Hulse “lost basic freedoms: He couldn’t spend his own money or decide where to live.The lifelong Republican who had just cast his ballot in the 2020 presidential primary even lost his right to vote. He was quickly moved to a nursing home. His new guardian, a woman he had never met, began sellinghis house and his belongings.”
Guardianship, which the article calls a court-sanctioned arrangement created to protect vulnerable people, controls the lives of a million persons in the U.S., many of them elderly. “The system has been widely criticized for inviting abuse and theft,” says the Washington Post.
“Local judges give extraordinary power to a guardian, including access to the bank account of the person in their care, despite a lack of effective ways to monitor them,” the article states. “When excessive billing, missing money and other abuses are discovered, guardians are rarely punished. Prosecutors are keenly aware they were appointed by a judge.”
Court-Appointed Guardians: Focusing on Florida
According to the Washington Post, the rapidly aging population of America has prompted a new focus on court-appointed guardianship. This is especially true in Florida, which already has 2 million residents 75 or older. In Jordan’s words, “Many moved here from other parts of the country, far from family, and are showing up alone in emergency rooms.”
For those in isolation and without close family, the threat of court-appointed guardianship is very real.
Court-Appointed Guardianships Help Hospitals’ Bottom Line
The case of Douglas Hulse, says the article, “shines a light on the serious flaws in this government system and on the hospital pipeline that thrust Hulse into it.” Reporter Jordan notes that, during the COVID pandemic, more hospitals went to court to seek guardianships because such a move “was a way to legally move out patients and free up beds. Today, the practice quietly continues as an efficient way to discharge elderly patients who cost hospitals money the longer they stay.”
“This should scare people to death,” Rick Black, the founder of the Center for Estate Administration Reform, told the Washington Post’s Jordan. Black has examined thousands of guardianship cases. “This is a common practice nationwide,” he states, “and its adoption is growing.”
First a Court-Appointed Guardian, Then the Nursing Home
Again, the original Washington Post article does an excellent job filling in the details. Basically, the Orlando hospital asked the court to assign Hulse to a 51-year-old former real estate agent named Dina Carlson, who had decided to change careers to become a professional guardian. That court ruling is where the upheaval in Hulse’s life really began.
“After a judge assigned [Carlson],” Jordan relates, “Hulse was immediately moved out of the hospital and into a nursing home.” Carlson then sold Hulse’s home, a sale which the Post says “raised suspicions because of its seeminglylow price in a hot market, and an inspector general’s investigation laterfound ‘probable cause’ of exploitation of an elderly person and a scheme to defraud.”
Nevertheless, says the article, Carlson denied any wrongdoing, and no criminal investigation was ever opened.
Court-Appointed Guardianships Hide Behind a Veil of Secrecy
“Guardianships are not well understood,” the Washington Post article acknowledges. “Rules vary by jurisdiction, and key information is often sealed by judges.” Even extended families can’t easily get all the facts, and guardianships are difficult and costly to reverse once in place.
“People don’t realize how abusive the system is,” Pinellas County Circuit Court Clerk Ken Burke told Jordan. “If they knew, there would be bigger cries for reform.” Burke has led efforts in Florida for improvement in the guardianship system.
Typically, seniors forced into guardianships have no one to advocate on their behalf. “Very often, the person in a guardianship is unable to publicly complain and has nobody in their life to do it for them,” says Jordan.
Court-Appointed Guardianships Can Leave Families in the Dark
But Hulse’s case was different. He did have family, the article relates, and after a period without communication from Hulse, they were searching for him. However, sadly, his medical condition had gotten in the way. “After his stroke,” says Jordan, “Hulse was confused and apparently unable to tell anyone to call his family. It’s unclearwhat efforts the hospital made to track down any relatives.”
When asked about this question, Geo Morales, a spokesman for the Orlando Health South Seminole Hospital, declined to discuss details of Hulse’s case because of privacy laws. But he did offer words of advice.
“We are seeing more of these patients with dementia and other ailments who live alone and/or are estranged from relatives,” Morales said in an email to the Washington Post. According to Jordan, Morales “strongly urged people to draw up a will or designate someone to make their health decisions and to note this in their medical file.”
A Critical Oversight: No Written Will or Power of Attorney
According to the Washington Post report, Hulse had made a critical mistake: he had never prepared a will or any other documents, such as a power of attorney, to give the hospital the proper person to contact and to guide the court in its deliberation. “In these cases,” Jordan writes, court records show, hospitals often turn to guardianships, even though they are widely considered a last resort and difficult to reverse.”
As the article explains, the rise in court-appointed guardianships has paralleled the increased isolation of today’s seniors. “For generations, judges have been assigning a relative or close friend as the protector of someone unable to make their own decisions,” says Jordan. “But more people are socially isolated and have no one they can count on at the end of their life. Even many people with close relatives are estranged from them.”
Multi-generational living is common, of course, in many societies, but less so with the American lifestyle that favors single-person households. We often live alone beginning in our 20s, and by the time we reach 80, most of us will live by ourselves.
Court-Appointed Guardians: Big Case Load, Few Qualifications
As the article describes Dina Carlson, the Florida guardian for Douglas Hulse, she was already caring for 18 other clients when Hulse was assigned to her. “Carlson charged him $65 an hour, according to her bills filed in court,” says the Washington Post. “When a judge signed off, she paid herself from Hulse’s bank account.”
The so-called “training” in order to become a guardian is inconsistent and often pathetically lacking. “In some states, the only requirement to be a guardian is to be 18 years old,” the article asserts. “Florida has more requirements including a background and credit check. But still, compare the 40-hour training course with, for instance, the 900 educational hours required to become a licensed barber.”
In light of such meager training, the power that court-appointed guardians yield is enormous. “These caretakers control people’s lives and money,” warns Jordan. “In just one Florida county, Palm Beach, guardians control about $1 billion, according to Anthony Palmieri, deputy inspector general for the Palm Beach Circuit Court. “You have your nail techs and tennis pros — their business is not so good and they want something more lucrative and they’re jumping into guardianship,” Palmieri said.
(We note that here in Washington State, home to AgingOptions and Life Point Law, the Washington Association of Professional Guardians appears to be making an effort to set and enforce a higher standard. As noted, certification requirements vary by state.)
Calls for More Regulation Go Unheeded
Sadly, as the Washington Post article explains, those calling for reform often hit a brick wall from others who benefit from the haphazard system as it is, especially in states like Florida.
“Critics have called for a uniform system with more oversight,” Jordan writes. “But several Florida officials said those who benefit from the current, complex system, including lawyers, impede reform. Efforts to make attorneys’ fees in these cases more publicly visible have also failed.” As a result, “the system with few guardrails continues,” Jordan concludes.
Sometimes, official apathy is to blame. “Advocates for the elderly say police and prosecutors often do not treat financial exploitation of elderly people seriously enough and are reluctant to sink time into cases where the only witness has dementia, if still alive,” says Jordan.
Epilogue: Allegations of Misappropriation Dismissed
As we read the long, sad tale of Douglas Hulse, it appears to build a clear case against Dina Carlson that she misappropriated his assets and left his family out of the picture. One example: she sold Hulse’s home for the bargain-basement price of $215,000 to a real estate couple she knew from her own neighborhood, who resold the house a few months later for $347,000.
Yet in the end the state officials declined to pursue a criminal investigation, says the article. Two days after that decision was announced, Hulse died and his body was cremated. Hulse’s niece and nephew are now waiting to learn what, if anything, is left in his estate.
After the Washington Post brought the case to the attention of the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, the agency “reprimanded Carlson for her failure to file timely reports,” says Jordan. “Her penalty: She must take eight more hours of classroom training.”
(originally reported at www.washingtonpost.com)