I had entered the courthouse to be with my cousin Morris. He was fighting to become the legal guardian of his wife, Sophie, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Morris had been my father’s partner in a bakery business for many years—he and Sophie had always been part of my life growing up—and when he asked me for support, I had to go. Since he was Sophie’s husband, I thought it would be a simple procedure, but it was not. Due to an ongoing family dispute, Morris was denied the right to be his wife’s legal guardian. The judge had also refused to make any other immediate family member guardian. Instead, he asked if there was another relative available and willing to become Sophie’s guardian.
At that moment, Morris turned to me. I agreed to become Sophie’s guardian, and to have Sophie as my ward. While I consented to take on this responsibility, I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had no problem overseeing the welfare of my cousin. However, what I would eventually learn was how a legal system—designed to take care of people who could not take care of themselves—had become a gold mine for unscrupulous individuals who knew how to “play” the system.
I must admit that I was naïve. In order to become a guardian, all I had to do was watch a video and take a test. It was only after I was approved that I was told that I was going to be “co-guardian” alongside a lawyer who specialized in this area. I served as Sophie’s co-guardian for several years, supposedly working with the first court-appointed lawyer. However, while I did all the work, the co-guardian did little except submit a continual flurry of bills for her time. When the question was raised about her participation in front of the court, she was smart enough to resign without raising any red flags. At about this time, Morris passed away, and the court selected another co-guardian. This lawyer seemed to know just what to do, taking over what I had been doing for years. While the family continued to squabble, the one good thing was that Sophie was being well cared for by one of her two daughters.
When the guardianship started, Sophie still had a sizeable estate in her name. As time passed, I watched the money in Sophie’s bank account being used to pay off more legal fees, not only for the co-guardian’s services but also for those of the lawyer’s associates. Yet this was only the tip of the iceberg. There were other non-lawyers called in by this new co-guardian who charged Sophie for their “services,” as well. At one point, one of the lawyers involved told me that I should be billing Sophie’s estate for the time I was spending as a co-guardian, but I had never wanted a penny. By the time Sophie died, all of the money in her estate was gone. And all I could do was watch as these “guardianship” players nimbly extracted the money that Sophie and Morris had worked a lifetime to accumulate—all done legally, and under the court’s “supervision.” I quickly learned that sending off all manner of emails to elected officials and organizations such as AARP and the JDL was a complete waste of time. I needed to do something—anything.
I needed first to learn as much as I could about how our system of state-based guardianships worked, and what I discovered horrified me. In each state, the system allows guardians to essentially take over the lives of their wards. They control every aspect of the ward’s finances, living arrangements, and medical care as well as visiting arrangements with other family members and friends. And should a ward own any property but no longer possess the funds to pay the guardian, the guardian is allowed legally to sell off the ward’s assets in order to get paid. The guardian can even cast ballots on behalf of the ward to vote in elections—something about which judges running for re-election are obviously aware. As many stories reported in the news have shown, some truly greedy guardians do get caught. However, the ones who know how to play the system most often do not. As a book publisher, I needed to do the only thing that I knew I could do. I needed to find someone sufficiently knowledgeable to write a book about this legally supervised miscarriage of justice.
As I reviewed possible candidates, several names emerged. One person, though, seemed to be on a special mission to help unite families whose relatives had been trapped in this system. Dr. Sam Sugar is a medical doctor who, through firsthand experience, had seen just what a guardianship could do. Soon thereafter, he co-founded Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship (AAAPG), a nonprofit organization designed to help expose the corruption at the heart of each state’s guardianship system. When I asked if he wanted to write a book about this system, he readily agreed.
One year later, we published Guardianships and the Elderly: The Perfect Crime ($19.95 USD, ISBN: 978-0-7570-0433-9) to rave reviews (see below). To my surprise and continued dismay, the book has not yet brought about much-needed change. What it has done is provide a clear picture of how unwanted guardianships occur; establish a list of the crimes legally carried out by many guardians and their cohorts; and outline the options that families have at their disposal once a guardianship has been put in place.
I am not a lawyer, nor am I a politician or a hell-raiser. What I am is a publisher who still believes in the power of the printed word. It would be one thing if the co-guardians that I worked with had shown any compassion for my cousin. But for them, it was always about the money. Anyone who takes the time to read this book will understand that our parents, our friends, and even we can easily fall victim to this injustice. At least the reviewers who have read this book understand its important message. Here is what a few of them have said about this important book . . .
“A powerful voice in senior advocacy sounds the alarm on the guardianship industry’s gross abuses . . . explores the evolution of the guardianship process and its statutes, triggering scenarios, and mechanisms, offering clear, readable explanations of the legalities, appointed officials, and court probate structures involved . . . [Sugar’s] intent is to prevent others from suffering the financial and emotional struggle of a broken system and to empower readers to arm themselves with enough accessible knowledge and foresight to avoid the dizzyingly complicated guardianship arrangement altogether . . . smartly offers practical tips and alternatives to avoid abusive situations and to honor final intentions in the most respectful ways possible . . . A potent, important call to action for those preparing to assume or actively involved in the estate caretaking of an incapacitated loved one.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Enlightens readers about the financial and psychological toll taken on vulnerable elderly people by corrupt court-appointed guardians . . . [author] Sugar, who estimates that as many as 14% of all guardianships involve some criminality, convincingly demonstrates that the system as a whole is broken . . . going beyond merely sounding the alarm, he recommends concrete ways for individuals to protect themselves and their loved ones . . . with the aging of the American population and the concomitant increase in expected guardianships, this is a timely and valuable cri de coeur [passionate appeal].”
“Guardians should be champions and protectors who look out for incapacitated people, but they too often take advantage financially of those in their care, argues Sugar, a medical doctor who founded Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship (AAAPG) . . . Readers who worry about the trustworthiness of court-appointed guardians who are supposed to protect the health, assets, and welfare of a ward will find their fears confirmed . . . this is certainly an informative look at an important yet little-understood subject.” —Booklist
And while these reviewers’ words have shed some light on these terrible injustices, it is only Britney Spears’ guardianship case that gets headlines. However, what Dr. Sugar’s book has done is create a small army of dedicated advocates around the country. All of whom have become knowledgeable about this system and its faults after reading the book. In addition, the book has served as a catalyst for change and legitimized the sincere and fervent complaints from victims and families nationwide. Until such time as the government mandates the collection of legitimate data on guardianships, it can be said that there is now no more reliable source for information about this problem than Guardianships and the Elderly. And at least now, for the family members and friends of those trapped in this system, Dr. Sugar’s book is there to help them see what lies in front of them—and what, if anything, they can do to help.