Dr. Sam Sugar has a pretty clear picture of how he thought life would be after he retired to Miami from Skokie, Ill.
The physician saw himself in a bathing suit, on the beach, spending time with his wife and grandchildren. He'd travel, read and have time for himself.
But after his wealthy, widowed mother-in-law became a ward of the state — her affairs controlled by a coterie of lawyers, nurses and a court-appointed guardian — Sugar channeled his anger into political activism. Now he is on the verge of a breakthrough. With Sugar and the organization he helped found, Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, leading the charge, Florida lawmakers are in the process of overhauling the state's guardianship laws. The changes are aimed at installing some checks and balances to ensure that guardians, who have considerable power once they are appointed to a case, are qualified and that their actions can be reviewed.
"We have accomplished something monumental," said Sugar, who has testified in Tallahassee on behalf of the overhaul.
Sugar spent countless hours researching the laws after he and his wife engaged with her siblings in a brutal years-long squabble over the well-being of his mother-in-law, Idelle Stern.
As often happens in such situations, there were fingers pointed in multiple directions. Sugar claims the guardian and lawyers, in cahoots with the courts and his wife's siblings, siphoned millions from Stern's accounts while keeping her isolated from him and his wife. The siblings and the guardian claimed that the Sugars moved to South Florida with designs on Stern's money, and that they were simply protecting Stern from exploitation.
One of the few things that is not in dispute is that the guardianship process and associated litigation cost everyone a lot of money. Stern, whose late husband was a rabbi and successful investor, died in 2013, leaving an estate partially drained and a family utterly divided.
It is hardly an isolated case. In December, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune published a series of stories asserting that Florida's guardianship system ignores basic rights. The newspaper documented instances where guardians removed seniors from their homes and sold off their belongings, to cover the cost of providing services.
With roughly 3.7 million Floridians over 65, guardianship is big business. Many come to Florida from elsewhere upon retirement, and they bring their savings with them. As they age, some lose the capacity to manage their affairs, falling prey to exploitation — sometimes by family members or "friends," sometimes by strangers. The guardianship apparatus is meant to protect them. When some children live close by and others don't, it can exacerbate problems.
Under current law, family members, nursing homes and other people and institutions can petition the court system to have someone declared incapacitated. A judge will appoint a three-member panel, consisting of medical personnel or social workers, to examine the individual and render a judgment. They might ask questions such as who is the president, to determine the person's grasp of the world around them.
If the individual is deemed incapacitated and there is not an appropriate family member to step in, he or she can end up a ward of the court. In such instances, the ward's financial, medical and legal decisions are made by strangers, under court supervision.
It's a growth industry, one reason the number of professional guardians has soared from less than 10 to 465, according to the state Department of Elder Affairs. To become a guardian requires 40 hours of training and no felony conviction. Guardians, who have a legal duty to inventory their wards' property and invest and manage the assets "as a prudent investor would," are paid for their services at a rate approved by the court.
The Herald-Tribune and others have documented cases where the judges appointing guardians have received campaign contributions from those who benefit from the appointment.
Jetta Getty, the president of the Florida State Guardianship Association, said professional guardians are appointed as a last resort. In a letter to the House of Representatives, Getty said appointments come only "when dysfunction, exploitation, neglect, abuse or strife warrants."
"Several testifying at the hearings (in Tallahassee) offered testimony from the family member perspective stating their view as victims of perceived wrongs and actions attributed to Professional Guardians," she said in the letter. "Might I offer, if these family members were as innocent in their roles as they profess, no Professional Guardian would be considered for appointment by the Courts as the Courts under Statutes do give preference to family members serving in the role of guardian over the Professional."
Getty said there are positive aspects of the proposed new legislation, but there are also concerns. She cited one measure that would require courts to appoint guardians on a rotating basis, taking any potential favoritism out of the process.
Elder law attorney Steve Martin from Lakeland told a Florida Senate panel that a rotation might not solve the problem in smaller counties.
"You'll be rotating from a list of two or three people," he said.
Added Shannon Miller, a guardian and elder care attorney from Gainesville: "It's going to really create a problem because guardians are people and wards are people, and they need to fit properly."
Sugar's story begins in 2010. He and his wife had moved to Florida. Stern, his mother-in-law, had her own apartment in Miami Beach and had round-the-clock care. The other siblings began to question whether the Sugars were exercising undue influence over Stern, whose husband died in 2004.
According to Sugar, on April 15, 2010, there was a knock on his door and he was told he had 24 hours to get to court.
He said his mother-in-law was immediately assigned a temporary guardian. He said that meant that all of her life decisions — things like the purchase of groceries, the selection of a doctor and the spending of her own money — were now out of her control. He said he later would see invoices charged to the estate that disturbed him, everything from legal fees to bills for answering emails and opening envelopes.
At some point, the guardianship firm, Comprehensive Personal Care, sued the Sugars, claiming funds had been misappropriated by them.
Before she was placed in guardianship, his mother-in-law was a vital woman who loved to go shopping and visit with her friends, Sugar said. After a while in guardianship, no longer.
That is a common complaint among those who criticize the guardianship system — that isolation combined with medication can accelerate a ward's decline.
"She was forced to be a prisoner," Sugar said. "She couldn't play bingo, she couldn't even go and buy an ice cream."
However, Robert Stok, attorney for the out-of-town siblings, said in Stern's case "guardianship worked." He questioned the motives behind Sugar's push for new legislation.
"The court had to protect her money," he said. "If someone is unsuccessful in court, they want to circumvent the system by changing the law."
Liz Messianu, an attorney who represented the guardian in the Stern case, said she could not comment on specifics, citing settlement agreements. She did say, generally, that if there are accusations of wrongdoing against a guardian, a petition to remove the guardian can be filed under current law.
Sugar, meantime, learned that others faced similar frustrations navigating the guardianship process. It often begins, he said, with a family squabble, followed by accusations of wrongdoing, a filing in court, a declaration of guardianship and then a lengthy fight to stop the process from depleting the ward's life savings.
"Somewhere there is a playbook," he said.
Thus was born the group Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship. He found an ally in Lidya Abramovici, also of Aventura.
Five years ago, Abramovici's mother, Perla Brief de Abramovici, was visiting South Florida from Venezuela when, the daughter says, a second daughter sought to have their mother declared incapacitated. She was assigned a guardian, though her assets were offshore and she was not a U.S. citizen.
Because her mother was from another country, Abramovici felt the court was overstepping its bounds. She left the country with her Perla, who was in her mid 90s. Once there, she recorded an interview between her mother and a doctor. In the lengthy clip posted on YouTube, Perla Brief de Abramovici seems sharp and lucid, answering questions easily in Spanish and reminiscing about her Romanian childhood.
Eighteen months later, mother and daughter returned to the United States. Lidya, a U.S. citizen, said she felt compelled to return because of a judge's order.
Perla Brief de Abramovici, widow of a well-to-do bank director and merchant, died in 2012. She wanted to be buried by her husband in Venezuela, her daughter said, but the money was gone. She was interred in Miami.
The experience left Lidya Abramovici, who works in real estate, determined to change the system.
"We know there has been a concerted effort statewide to dissipate guardianship assets at the benefit of professional guardians and their attorneys," Abramovici said. "We cannot turn back now."
Sugar took his fight to Tallahassee last year and made some inroads. But he is truly seeing the fruits of his labor this year.
Lawmakers in both the Florida House and Senate, having heard horror stories about guardianships run amok, are working on various measures to change the way guardians are appointed — and clarify the responsibilities they have to their wards.
HB 5 is the proposal that would require guardians to be appointed on a rotating basis. It would also specify that guardians must act in good faith, and explicitly prohibit the abuse, exploitation or neglect of a ward.
"As a personal injury attorney, I deal with guardians all the time," said State Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, a Miami Democrat who is co-sponsoring the bill. "I see the potential for abuse."
The bill allows judges to refer contested guardianship matters to mediation in order to cut back on litigation costs. And it speeds up the process for terminating a guardianship for someone who is no longer incapacitated.
Thus far, the measure has won the support of two committees in the House. The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a similar proposal (SB 318) earlier this month.
"It's an important issue," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami. "There have been numerous cases of abuse and we're working to address those concerns."
A separate bill by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, seeks to increase oversight by establishing a new Office of Public and Professional Guardians and requiring the registration of professional guardians (SB 1226). The office would review allegations of fraud and abuse, and have the authority to conduct investigations and take disciplinary action when necessary.
Detert called the bill her "top priority."
"Those little cracks in the law are allowing cockroaches to climb through and take advantage of people who are elderly," she said, before her proposal was approved by a unanimous vote of the Senate Children, Families, and Elder Affairs Committee.
The House version of the proposal (HB 1225) is also gaining traction.
Others say state officials would be better off by enforcing the rules that already exist.
"You can have all of the bills in the world, but unless there is enforcement, the judges and the attorneys who are predators are going to keep doing what they are doing," said Theresa Giffen Pizzarello, a Sarasota resident who has spent thousands of dollars battling her parents' guardian in court. "They need to enforce the laws that are already in place."
Sugar says being put through the guardianship ringer has taken a heavy toll on him and his wife. He said they have no relationship with her family and they blame the stress for ultimately killing her mother, who died in 2013.
"She never did anything wrong," he said. "Her only crime was to age in Florida."