NEWS: Guardianship Initiative

The Judicial Branch Facilitates a Statewide Guardianship Initiative

By Beth Schwartz, Court Publications Writer
Full Court Press, Spring-Summer 2017

With its boundless sunshine, glorious beaches, opportunities for an active lifestyle, doctor availability, low taxes, and relatively modest cost of living, Florida has long been a haven for retirees.  Thus it is no surprise that the nation’s third most populous state is also home to the highest rate of residents aged 65 years and older.  Currently, nearly 3.5 million Floridians, approximately 17 percent of the state’s inhabitants, are at least 65 years old.  Meanwhile, like the population of the US, the population of Florida is aging at an unprecedented rate, so that number is expected to rise: in 2030, more than 24 percent of the state’s denizens are likely to have already celebrated their sixty-fifth birthday (Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research).

Judge Rodriguez

In the Opening Plenary at the July WINGS Summit, Judge Jose Rodriguez, who works in the Probate Division of the Ninth Circuit, stresses the need for a collaborative approach to problem-solving that pools resources for greater effectiveness.

Because the risk of developing one or more disabilities grows with age, accompanying the burgeoning of the state’s older population is the increasing number of guardianship cases in Florida’s courts.  In fact, guardianship—a process in which a court appoints someone to exercise certain legal rights of an individual who has been adjudicated incapacitated—is one of the few case types in the state that has shown growth over the last five years.  And in the years ahead, that caseload is projected to escalate even more quickly.

To best meet the needs of any adult who may require decision-making assistance, stakeholders have long agreed that Florida law and guardianship processes must periodically be assessed and improved.  Recently, numerous efforts have been made to promote guardianship reform in the state.  For instance, in 2015 and 2016, the Florida Legislature passed laws to increase the state’s regulation and oversight of professional guardians and enacted measures designed to curb abuses; the jurisdiction of the clerks of the circuit courts was expanded to allow for greater investigative authority to uncover fraud and financial exploitation; the Office of Public and Professional Guardianship began working to establish standards of practice, disciplinary guidelines, and credit investigation procedures for public and professional guardians; and the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council has funded projects related to guardianship, alternatives to guardianship, and the development of a person’s abilities.  Meanwhile, members of The Florida Bar’s Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section have been considering a rewrite of Florida’s current guardianship statute.

The judicial branch has also been working to improve the guardianship process.  Under the umbrella of the Judicial Management Council, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga established a Guardianship Workgroup in October 2016.  Chaired by Judge Olin Shinholser (ret.), Tenth Circuit, this workgroup is examining judicial procedures and best practices pertaining to guardianship to ensure that courts are best protecting the person, property, and rights of people who have been judged to be incapacitated and people who may have diminished capacity to function independently.  The workgroup is also developing strategies for improving accountability to better protect these vulnerable people.

All of these efforts are designed to promote guardianship reform.  However, each entity has been working largely independently of the others, targeting policy and practice issues from its own unique perspective and advancing solutions that address its own particular concerns.  What has been lacking in Florida is a concerted effort to address the issues systematically among all the stakeholders.  To ameliorate the ways that courts and guardians practice, and to enhance the lives of people who have, or may need, guardians, judicial branch leaders recognized the need for a broad-based, interdisciplinary, collaborative initiative.  The time was ripe for establishing a WINGS—Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders—in Florida.

Emerging from a core recommendation of the 2011 Third National Guardianship Summit, WINGS promotes the development of court-community partnerships to improve practices in adult guardianship and to provide less restrictive decision-making options.  Thus far, with grant and technical assistance from the American Bar Association and the National Center for State Courts, 18 states have established and maintain WINGS entities.  The judicial branch applied for a grant in February 2017 and, on May 1, received notice that its application for funding had been selected to establish a WINGS (Florida is one of five states receiving funding to establish new WINGS partnerships).

WINGS Summit speakers Judge Rodriguez, Ninth Circuit; State Courts Administrator PK Jameson; and Judge Michelle Morley, Fifth Circuit.

WINGS Summit speakers Judge Rodriguez, Ninth Circuit; State Courts Administrator PK Jameson; and Judge Michelle Morley, Fifth Circuit.

To initiate the process, Chief Justice Labarga has called together a large, broad-based stakeholder group that is scheduled to meet four times in the coming year.

For the first meeting, which took place on July 27, more than 60 guardianship stakeholders from across the state were invited to share their particular perspectives and to identify key issues that need to be addressed (invited stakeholders included members of the judiciary, of legislative and executive branch agencies, and of related, private organizations, as well as guardians and self-advocates).  In addition, to collect, cull, and process the torrent of data, information, and ideas, both from Florida and across the nation, that will emerge over the next year, and to shape a strategic plan for Florida’s reform efforts, the chief justice appointed an eight-member steering committee (comprising a judge, a guardian, and representatives from the Department of Elder Affairs, the Department of Children and Families, the Florida Developmental Disabilities Council, Disability Rights Florida, the Social Security Administration, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs).  At this point, Florida WINGs will be strictly planning-oriented, focused on improving the ability of state and local guardianship systems to develop protections less restrictive than guardianship, on advancing guardianship reforms, and on addressing abuse.  For more information about this initiative, take this link to the press release.

The chief justice and State Courts Administrator PK Jameson have both emphasized that WINGS is a priority of Florida’s courts system and has the highest level of support.  Ms Jameson stated that with this grant and the technical assistance, “Florida will be positioned to embrace systems change within the guardianship process, avoid unnecessary guardianships, and better identify ways to address financial exploitation.”  They envision WINGS as an exciting opportunity for the three branches, organizations with guardianship components, and self-advocates to concentrate on decision-making assistance and develop synergistic solutions both to current and emerging guardianship issues.