Tiffany AriasStaff Editor

Florida is one of the leading states with the highest population of senior citizens. However, this group is known to be more vulnerable to bad actors that could potentially take advantage of them either financially or physically. In order to avoid such harm to a vulnerable person, “a guardianship is a legal proceeding in which a guardian is appointed to exercise the legal rights of an incapacitated adult.” During the legal proceeding, “the court finds an individual’s ability to make decisions so impaired that the court removes all or some of the individual’s rights and gives the right to make decisions to the guardian.” A person who needs a “guardianship may have dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, a developmental disability, chronic illness or other such conditions that generally cause functional limitations.” An adult who is deemed incapacitated and is the subject of a guardianship case is called a “ward.”

In such cases where a ward is in need of assistance to perform their daily activities of living, the courts look to appoint professional guardians in order to take care and manage their lives while in a guardianship. These public and professional guardians are to watch over the welfare and safety of a ward and are to protect them from any abuse that they may encounter. “A guardian has a fiduciary duty, to act in the best interests of the ward and their responsibilities weigh heavily on the decisions they make for their ward because in most cases they have complete control over the person that they are serving.”

Although not common, there is still room for bad actors who become guardians and may take advantage of how susceptible the elderly and disabled are mentally and physically. Fortunately, in Florida “there has been talk about toughening up the guardianship laws to protect the elderly and disabled.” This legislation was derived from a scandal involving 75-year-old Steven Stryker and his professional guardian. Rebecca Fierle-Santoian, a well-known professional guardian was “arrested on two felony counts of abuse and aggravated neglect after she deliberately refused to remove a DNR order she filed against Mr. Stryker’s wishes and protests from his daughter, healthcare surrogate and psychiatrist.” This blatant disregard by Ms. Fierle-Santoian led to the death of Mr. Stryker at a Tampa hospital in which staff were unable to perform life-prolonging procedures due to following this DNR order. Following the death of Mr. Stryker, an investigation was made into how Ms. Fierle-Santoian operated as a professional guardian and found that “she had executed numerous ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ (DNR) orders on many of the Wards under her supervision without family or court permission.”

A Do Not Resuscitate Order (DNRO) is a “form developed by the Department of Health to identify people who do not wish to be resuscitated in the event of respiratory or cardiac arrest, this form should only be printed on yellow paper.” The new proposed legislation “addresses issues of conflicts of interest, compensation, and strengthening and formalizing the process by which a professional guardian obtains a Do-Not-Resuscitate (DNR) order on a ward.” Companion bills—House Bill 709 and Senate Bill 994 will now create stricter supervision on cases involving vulnerable and elderly patients. Both bills are aimed to “prohibit the court-appointed decision-makers from signing or consenting to a DNR order for wards without obtaining “specific authority from the court.” Therefore, all guardians will need to get court approval by a judge in order to sign or consent to a DNR order. Additionally, these DNR orders will no longer be the subject of abuse or exploitation by any guardians. If these bills pass as expected, the bill will go to Governor DeSantis to be signed into law.

Although most guardians are known for the good work that they provide for the wards they serve, it is unfortunate that bad actors are the cause that influences a need for harsher guardianship laws. Fortunately, these proposed bills will provide for stricter guidelines and court supervision over what guardians can and cannot do so that the elderly and disabled are not being taken advantage of. End of life plans for your loved ones are never an easy conversation to have because it may be hard to speak about what your loved ones wishes are. However, if your loved one states their end of life plans, a professional guardian specifically appointed in their guardianship must never disregard or fail to abide by a wards wishes. If you or someone you know is the subject of a known or suspected abuse, neglect, exploitation or self-neglect of the elderly or disabled, please call the abuse hotline 1-800-962-2873.