Martinez-Smith, 68, said she felt like she hit the lottery when she met retired Army Col.
But the retired school teacher said their bliss was destroyed when a judge found her husband incapacitated after a car crash and appointed a professional guardian.
With the blessing of two
"That was the most horrible day of my life, the day my marriage was annulled," she said.
Besides annulling her marriage, one judge kicked her out of court and another threatened her with arrest. Still, Martinez-Smith persevered, winning appeal after appeal and wresting control back from the professional guardian.
Professional guardians are the subject of several bills moving rapidly through the
It is not unusual for a judge to give professional guardians absolute control over a ward's property, finances, medical decisions and housing. And all it takes is 40 hours of training and a modest background check to become a professional guardian and earn
The modus operandi of many professional guardians is to "litigate, isolate, medicate and take the estate," said Dr. Sam Sugar, an activist on the guardianship issue.
Not all wards are seniors. Some are younger adults found incapacitated, but with 3.7 million people over 65 in
Business is also very good for the attorneys who flock around these guardians.
Every professional guardian employs at least one attorney to traverse the landscape of social services, nursing homes and liquidating assets. These lawyers come at a steep price, charging hundreds of dollars an hour in addition to the guardians' fees.
Martinez-Smith has spent a good part of her life savings --
Smith's assets paid Cramer
"According to anyone's observation, this is a legal form of grand theft and robbery. It's exploitation of the elderly," Martinez said. "These guardians have to be stopped."
"The population is aging and this is something that is going to be more and more of an issue. The more protection the better," he said.
In the meantime, the retired
Before the guardian put him in the nursing home, he was walking and talking, Martinez-Smith said. "How could they do this to him?"
Cramer, the guardian, did not return a calls for comment and his attorney
Lawmaker: They're 'cockroaches'
It's stories like Martinez-Smith's that have caught the attention of lawmakers.
"There are billions of dollars in the state of
The impetus behind these bills is a ragtag group of family members who say they have seen professional guardians abuse their vast powers against their loved ones.
"The bottom line always bounces back to the fact that in a guardianship, one person -- a complete stranger with no attachment to the ward or their family -- is given the right to own another person like a piece of property and can do whatever they want without fear of reprisal," said Sugar, a retired physician from
"Take that away and these acts of these nasty guardians are felonies and civil rights violations."
Professional guardians often come into play when there is family discord and financially comfortable or wealthy wards are involved.
Once in place, guardians and their attorneys can liquidate long-held stock, bonds, insurance policies and sell property, whether it be the family home or jewelry. Family members are often kept in the dark because payments to the guardian and his attorneys from the ward's assets are filed in court automatically under seal.
If a ward dies, the guardian then can seek to become the personal representative of the estate. Then the guardian and attorney, under state law, are entitled to 3 percent each of the estate if it's worth at least
'Geriatric head hunters'
Sugar's group says the professional guardian industry is teeming with abuse.
It has documented numerous cases in which estates were decimated by guardians and elder law attorneys through unnecessary legal filings. They claim evidence of straw sales of family homes so they could be sold at a profit by a third party.
The organization also says they know of "trolling" where for-profit guardians employ spotters to target the elderly at assisted living facilities or senior centers.
"Trolling can be accomplished most easily under the guise of a free seminar for financial planning for elders," Sugar said. "We were recently successful in aborting one of these seminars at a synagogue when we informed the leadership that the proposed speaker had been a key figure in several cases well known to us."
Licensed clinical social worker Wendi Cassand, with offices in
After three years of lobbying, Sugar now has the attention of key lawmakers.
Proposed legislation -- such as HB5, SB1226 and SB318 -- aim to eliminate favoritism by judges with a random rotation of guardian appointments, a proposal recently adopted in
Some want to rid the landscape altogether of professional guardians, saying the system is far too incestuous.
"It cannot be fixed. Judges have been given too much power," said
Sarhan is joined in his position by others such as
"I was warned if you put your mother in a guardianship, you will end up not being able to see her and they will steal all her money and when the money is gone she is going to die," she said.
Many of these concerns about professional guardianships were raised years ago, in
She hired a full-time auditor and set up an abuse hotline. Her office has investigated more than 700 cases since 2011 and uncovered more than
"This is an issue near and dear to our heart," Bock said. "Our role is to be looking at the financial exploitation of someone who has been made a ward of the court."
Sugar said it's important to note professional guardians are only part of the problem.
Attorneys are huge beneficiaries, he said. If a family tries to fight a guardianship, there are numerous lawyers for numerous members of the family, the ward, the guardian and others. A simple 20-minute conference call between these parties easily cost the estate upwards of
"It's even worse when you have a deposition where for every one lawyer, two or three partners show up. You can have an estate drained of
Payments aren't public
Sugar said the estate of his late mother-in-law
And some judges don't seem to want the public to know either.
Court documents show that
"The problem involves judges, guardianship attorneys, adult protective services employees, and not-for-profit religious and secular agencies, who are profiting from these guardianship cases," he said.
Martinez-Smith doesn't want to talk about the judges in her case. But the appellate court has supported her three times so far by reversing Palm Beach County Circuit Judges
Smith had ended up in the clutches of a guardianship when the couple were still engaged. After the car accident in 2010, one of Smith's children petitioned a judge to find him incapacitated. Colin appointed Cramer as a temporary guardian and Martinez-Smith initially retained control of her husband's medical care.
But Cramer asked Colin to cut out Martinez-Smith altogether. At a hearing on the matter, Colin kicked Martinez-Smith out of the courtroom "on the basis of a perceived insult to him," according to a
Colin told Martinez-Smith that her entire demeanor, including "her face, her voice, her sound, may be unpleasant to everyone else" but her husband. The appellate court told Colin to recuse himself, saying "that would lead any reasonably prudent person to fear that she would not receive a fair hearing before the judge."
But Martinez-Smith found little solace when the case was transferred to French.
Judge threatens arrest
Cramer had complained that Martinez-Smith was abusive to the staff over the lack of her husband's care at the nursing home. French removed her as a health-surrogate and banned her from seeing her husband. In the courtroom, French pointed his finger at Martinez-Smith and said he would have her arrested if she even went near her husband at the nursing home.
At a subsequent hearing, French also granted the guardian's request to annul the marriage. "I was crying in his courtroom," Martinez-Smith said.
Again, the appellate court reversed, ousting Cramer as guardian on
"It's not surprising that someone strongly advocating for excellent care for their loved one would be at odds with staff which may be less than diligent in delivering such care," the opinion written by appellate court Judge
"The most important thing about this is that each individual has a fundamental right to choose their guardian or medical caregiver," Carroll said.
Now that Cramer is out, Martinez-Smith is again her husband's health-care surrogate. On Wednesday, she had him transported to
She comforted him, rubbing his chest in the wheelchair. "We are going to do everything we can to make you better," she told him.
(c)2015 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
Visit The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.) at www.palmbeachpost.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC