NEW YORK (WABC) — More than 108,000 people in the Tri-State live under court-appointed guardianships and a six-month long investigation by Eyewitness News found that the adult guardianship system in our area is plagued by several concerning issues, including courts not keeping track of guardianship records and guardian commissions, guardians filing incomplete paperwork, courts not having sufficient oversight of guardians and people questioning the power provided to guardians, including the ability of guardians to isolate people from their family and friends.
Eyewitness News investigated the guardianship case of Nathaniel LaMar Junior, of Cobble Hill, and found the guardian did not notify the court of LaMar’s death until five months after his death.
Under the law, guardians are supposed to notify the court regarding the death of their ward within 20 days of the date of death.
The delay held up the millions of dollars LaMar had bequeathed to the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Cambridge University, Howard University College of Medicine – where LaMar’s father went to medical school – and Phillips Exeter Academy – where LaMar went to high school.
The guardian also wrote the incorrect date of death for LaMar on the official court filing.
In addition, the death certificate states LaMar’s education as “unknown,” although LaMar was one of the first Black men to graduate from Harvard University in 1955 and studied at the University of Cambridge where his writing was admired by poet Sylvia Plath. LaMar later edited projects for Martin Luther King Jr.
The death certificate also states that LaMar was not in the armed forces when he had served in the U.S. Army.
The court-appointed guardian, Renee Oppenheimer, told Eyewitness News in an email that the statement of death was delayed because the funeral home had to make several amendments to LaMar’s death certificate.
As for the incorrect date of death, Oppenheimer said it was a typo.
LaMar’s friends, who had known him for 20 years, approached Eyewitness News investigative reporter Kristin Thorne with concerns about LaMar’s care under the guardianship.
“My life would be a whole lot simpler if I didn’t have to be involved in this,” Larry Gile, LaMar’s neighbor and friend said. “But I care deeply for this man. He was a gentleman, a very kind person and I think we owe it to him to just make sure that if there’s things that happened in his case that didn’t need to have happened or shouldn’t have happened that they don’t happen to someone else.”
Around 2015, LaMar, who had no family, began to suffer the effects of Parkinson’s disease and decided he wanted to have a guardian.
In 2016, a judge appointed Oppenheimer, who had been the court evaluator – essentially an overseer of court proceedings – on LaMar’s first attempt at getting a guardian to be LaMar’s guardian.
Under the guardianship law in New York State, which is governed under Article 81 of the state’s Mental Hygiene Law and the New York Court’s Part 36 rules, a judge may not promote someone’s court evaluator to be their guardian unless it’s under “extenuating circumstances.”
In 2015, Judge Michael Pesce in Brooklyn wrote he was promoting Oppenheimer from LaMar’s court evaluator to guardian because “such appointment is in the best interests of Nathaniel Reed Lamar as he has bonded with Renee Oppenheimer and request she be appointed as his guardian.”
Eyewitness News was unable to find any evidence – a signed document or court document – that LaMar chose Oppenheimer to be his guardian. The transcript from the court hearing also doesn’t mention LaMar stipulating that was his desire.
Oppenheimer told Eyewitness News investigative reporter Kristin Thorne that LaMar had asked her to be his guardian.
In the Tri-State, anyone can become a guardian – you do not have to be a lawyer – and guardians can decide how much they get paid. They are paid by the ward who they are assigned to.
“We’re not just stripping people of their rights, although that’s a huge deal,” Nina Kohn, law professor at Syracuse University, said. “We’re also, in many cases, charging them to have their rights removed.”
It’s not uncommon for guardians to bill hundreds of dollars an hour, some as high as $600-$800 an hour.
The top paid guardian in New York State in 2022 netted $444,492.50, according to the state reporting database. To see the entire list of New York guardianship fees in 2021 and 2022 listed by court-appointed guardian, click here.
All guardians in New York City are required to take a guardianship training course administered by the New York County Lawyers Association.
Eyewitness News requested Oppenheimer’s certificate of completion of her guardianship training, but she would not provide it to us.
A spokesperson for the New York Courts said the court system does not maintain a central database of the guardian certifications.
Lucian Chalfen said if a judge asks a guardian for their certification, they must provide it. We asked Chalfen for Oppenheimer’s certificate of training, but he would not provide it.
Soon into the guardianship, LaMar’s neighbors felt something wasn’t right.
“We began to hear from the aides that his health, he was becoming losing weight very rapidly,” Julia Lichtblau, LaMar’s long-time friend and neighbor, said
Gile and Lichtblau said the guardian isolated LaMar from them.
“One day we were told, we could not, the aides weren’t allowed to tell us anything anymore,” Lichtblau said.
“I always felt like once the guardian was appointed or shortly thereafter we became sort of outsiders,” Gile said.
Lichtblau and Gile said they grew concerned that LaMar, who had an estate worth more than $8 million, was not living the way he could have afforded to. They worried he wasn’t eating nutritious food and had concerns about the condition of his apartment – that it was dark and dingy.
“This was a very cultured, very comfortably off man,” Lichtblau said. “We began to be concerned that he wasn’t as comfortable as he might have been.”
They said LaMar’s townhouse on Pacific Street – around the corner from his apartment, which LaMar bought in the 1970s – also began to fall into disrepair.
Lichtblau and Gile said the tenants began to complain about rats, broken appliances and peeling paint.
Lichtblau and Gile wrote to Oppenheimer with their concerns. She responded to each one expressing she had dealt with the concerns of the tenants and that LaMar’s apartment was clean and he was being cared for appropriately.
“I spent countless hours attending to Nat’s affairs and was diligent and attentive to Nat’s needs,” Oppenheimer said in an email to Eyewitness News. “Although I am only required to visit the ward four times a year, for this case I visited him on average once a week. Between issues related to his assets and his care, I can say honestly that hardly a day went by that I was not somehow involved in some aspect of the case.”
Oppenheimer went on to write, “Nat did not consider his neighbors to be his friends. He felt they were nosey and were only interested in meddling into his business.”
In 2017, Oppenheimer asked a judge to bill $26,836.73 in fees to LaMar’s estate partially because, she wrote, Gile’s involvement “resulted in a lot of expended time on matters that would normally not take such effort to complete.”
Judge Michael Pesce denied the request, saying the fees were excessive and the highest ever brought before his bench.
Pesce, who retired in 2019, said in his written response that LaMar did not need a guardian in the first place, although Pesce was the one who assigned Oppenheimer as guardian just two years prior.
He wrote, “It also stands to reason that at its inception, a rational view of this petition would lead anyone with an elementary knowledge of Article 81 of the Mental Hygiene Law to conclude that Mr. Lamar was not incapacitated but one who simply needed assistance in carrying out his wishes and in activities of daily living.”
Pesce said Oppenheimer had acted with an “unfettered and extravagant holding of hands,” and that Oppenheimer’s legal submissions for LaMar’s care were “improperly labeled, contain untenable enumeration of time spent on tasks, are inordinately lacking in description of purpose, and most glaringly contains what, to this Court, an excessive amount of time billed and impermissible, improper labeling of ‘legal services.'”
In 2017, Oppenheimer moved to sell LaMar’s multi-million dollar townhouse located at 138 Pacific Street in Cobble Hill.
The petition to sell the home contains several factual errors, including the wrong ZIP codes for LaMar’s residence and the wrong ZIP code for the townhouse.
When Eyewitness News pointed out to Oppenheimer she had written the wrong ZIP codes, her written response was, “Ok.”
Judge Lisa Ottley assigned lawyer Michael Benjamin as the broker to sell LaMar’s property.
Benjamin netted $210,000 off the sale of the property. Eyewitness News found that Benjamin had donated $500 to Ottley’s re-election campaign a few years before.
Both Benjamin and Chalfen told Eyewitness News the donation did not present a conflict of interest.
According to the New York City Department of Finance, the building was sold to Edge Associates Pacific, LLC and Samuel Kooris. Edge Associates is licensed in Delaware. Sam Kooris is the co-founder of Alchemy Ventures, an affiliate of Alchemy Properties based in Lower Manhattan.
Eyewitness News tried to contact Kooris about the sale of the building. A media representative for Alchemy said Kooris did not want to comment.
Court records show LaMar’s townhouse was sold for $3.5 million.
In December 2021, the neighbors wrote to Judge Ottley because they said Oppenheimer was not allowing them to visit or communicate with LaMar.
Lichtblau wrote to Ottley’s secretary, “Ms. Oppenheimer has forbidden the caregivers and care manager from giving updates, shutting off the indirect communication that has enabled his friends to keep in touch and monitor his care. It’s hard to understand how this benefits Mr. LaMar.”
Oppenheimer told Eyewitness News, “There was general concern over visitation during the Covid pandemic and his (LaMar’s) doctor did not want him exposed. The neighbors reached out to the Court and after multiple conferences on the topic, safe approaches for visitation were suggested and implemented.”
Shortly thereafter, Oppenheimer arranged for FaceTime visits.
In late January 2022, Lichtblau and Gile heard LaMar had been hospitalized. They couldn’t find out where.
“You would think at this point, friends would be brought in,” Gile said.
Under New York State guardianship laws, guardians are not required to tell family members or friends where their loved one or friend is.
“We did detective work and we found him,” Gile said.
LaMar was at a rehabilitation center in the Rockaways. Lichtblau and Gile went to visit him and recorded video of him lifeless in his bed.
“I was not happy with what I saw in that room,” Gile said. “If hospice had been an option that could have been more comfortable.”
LaMar died a few days later at 88 years old.
Oppenheimer said she was unable to visit LaMar throughout his entire week-long stay at the rehab center due to a Covid concern.
For months, Lichtblau and Gile never knew what became of LaMar’s body. Oppenheimer did not tell them, although they wrote to her only days after LaMar died asking to assist with the scattering of his ashes on the River Cam in England, which was LaMar’s wish.
In addition, on February 21, 2022, Rebecca Adlington – the daughter of LaMar’s late partner – wrote to Oppenheimer expressing her desire and the desire of her sister to be present at the scattering of LaMar’s ashes.
“Do let us know if this is something that Abigail and I could carry out, or at least if we could be present when the ashes are scattered. It would mean a lot,” Adlington wrote.
Oppenheimer did not write back to anyone.
Eyewitness News confirmed with Kehilla Chapels, based in Brooklyn, that LaMar’s ashes were spread over the River Cam.
Eyewitness News also contacted attorney Ariella Gasner, who was appointed as the attorney for LaMar’s case, and is named in many of the public documents.
Gasner denied knowing who LaMar was. She said someone else handled his case and then she hung up on us.
Gasner also billed fees for LaMar’s case, which Judge Michael Pesce denied. He said Gasner billed excessive fees for travel and he reduced her hours for nearly every line item she had requested.
In one instance, Pesce wrote, “Mrs. Gasner’s work on this matter was purely time consuming with little, if any, research, writing and complexities.”
After LaMar died, Lichtblau and Gile wrote a letter to Milton Yu, New York State’s Managing Inspector General for Fiduciary Appointments, and the only person in charge of hearing complaints related to the state’s more than 49,000 court-appointed guardianships.
Yu met with Lichtblau and Gile last summer and told them after reviewing their concerns of LaMar’s care and the sale of his townhouse that because LaMar had chosen Oppenheimer as his guardian, he is unable to investigate their complaints.
“Mr. Lamar’s nomination of Ms. Oppenheimer rendered her appointment outside the reach of Part 36 rules, and outside the jurisdiction of my office,” he wrote in the letter dated September 8, 2022.
Eyewitness News clarified with the court that if LaMar had wanted to remove Oppenheimer as guardian, he would have had to go through the same process as someone whose guardian was appointed.
The process of removing a guardian can be lengthy and involves the filing of many court documents and motions. Most people have to hire a lawyer, while the guardian can use the money from the ward’s estate to fight the removal proceedings.
Eyewitness News investigative reporter Kristin Thorne also found in her investigation of LaMar’s case that Michael Benjamin – the lawyer appointed to work as the broker for the sale of LaMar’s townhouse – received an $18,000 commission for another guardianship case for which he served as the broker that is not listed in the court’s public fiduciary database and is also not accounted for in the court’s official records, according to the New York State court system.
Chalfen was unable to explain why the commission was not in the court’s official records.
Benjamin confirmed with Eyewitness News that he received the $18,000 commission.
Chalfen said, “Michael Benjamin could have been compensated, but the data we have indicates that the judge didn’t approve this compensation (there was no UCS 875 Approval for Compensation form filed). The judge may have approved the compensation but it is possible the clerk did not record it.”
According to the guardianship laws in New York, if a person has been awarded more than $100,000 in compensation during any calendar year, the person is not eligible for compensated appointments by any court during the next calendar year.
Eyewitness News asked Chalfen how the court can be sure Benjamin did not go over the $100,000 threshold if the court is not keeping track of his commissions. We also asked if the court is concerned other people with guardianship-related appointments may be going over the $100,000 threshold.
Chalfen did not respond.
In 2021, the New York Court system received a $1 million grant to upgrade its online guardianship case management system. Chalfen said the court system is creating a data dashboard for easy reporting and analysis. He said the new data system will allow the court to eliminate county-specific data tracking programs, which he said, “have hindered our ability to compile statewide data.” Chalfen said the system should be active by September 2023.
Chalfen said the court system is also using the grant money to revise more than a dozen guardianship forms and motion templates so they’re easier to understand by lay guardians, not lawyers. He said the court system is “well on our way” toward building a new website to host all the information. He said they’re also creating training and educational materials for lay guardians.
Kohn said the confusion and mismanagement of LaMar’s guardianship case is not uncommon.
“It’s far too easy to appoint guardians for people and it’s far too easy to give those guardians much broader powers than they actually need to protect the individual,” she said.
Kohn said legislators have not made guardianship reform a priority.
“You just have to think that these people are worth it and the reality is that legislatures have not treated these people as worth it,” she said.
Guardianships occur when a judge finds an adult “incompetent,” or “incapacitated.” A judge can also appoint a guardian if the judge decides it’s in the person’s “best interest.”
Often described as “civil death,” guardianships strip an adult of their fundamental rights. Once under a guardianship, an adult loses the right to make all decisions for themselves, including where they want to live, how to spend their money and even whom they are allowed to see. The guardian is given the authority to make all decisions related to the ward’s finances, living arrangements, social life and even their medical decisions, including resuscitation.
“In many states, you can appoint a guardian for somebody who does not, in fact, need that guardian,” Kohn said.
Anyone can be subjected to a court-appointed guardian, even those with a power of attorney and health care proxy, although having those two positions filled in a person’s life makes it much more difficult for a judge to appoint a guardian.
Marjorie Fister, originally from Oceanport, was taken into a guardianship in 2014 in New York City, despite the fact that her daughter, Ellen Oxman-Fister, of the Upper East Side, was her health care proxy and power of attorney.
Oxman-Fister said it started in December 2013 when she went to visit her mom in a hospital in Manhattan.
Oxman-Fister had removed her mother from her mother’s home in New Jersey because she feared her brother was financially exploiting their mother.
“I walked into the facility and there were a stack of documents next to her bed,” Oxman-Fister recounted. “I said, what is this? It was an unsigned order to show cause for a guardianship proceeding brought against her in Manhattan Supreme Court. It was brought by my brother. He’s not even from New York. How does he bring this against you in Manhattan Supreme Court?” Oxman-Fister recounted asking her mother. “She got upset. I got upset. I said, ‘what do I do now?'”
In 2014, Judge Lottie Wilkins appointed a guardian for Fister citing that Fister, “has certain functional limitations both of a physical and cognitive nature which impairs her ability to meet her personal needs and to manage her property and that she lacks sufficient understanding and appreciation of the nature of these functional limitation and will likely suffer harm as a result thereof.”
Wilkins revoked Oxman-Fister’s power of attorney and health care proxy for her mother.
He appointed attorney Paul Mederos – a complete stranger to Fister – as Fister’s guardian.
Judges throughout New York State select guardians from a list of approved guardians.
“I have fought ferociously for my mother’s rights and still I couldn’t stop this train,” Oxman-Fister said. “It’s a runway train.”
In 2018, the court attempted to remove Mederos as guardian because he didn’t file the required annual reports for Fister’s case two years in a row – 2015 and 2016.
Mederos came into compliance and was able to stay on as guardian.
Mederos told Eyewitness News he provided Fister “with the best care that I could.”
Mederos blocked Oxman-Fister from seeing her mother in a nursing home in the Bronx, where she resided until her death. Mederos told Eyewitness News he did it to protect Fister.
Mederos informed Oxman-Fister by email that her mother had died. The email is dated two days after Fister’s death.
“She didn’t deserve this,” Oxman-Fister said in tears. “She died alone. She must have wondered where I was.”
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
Since the 1980s, those involved in the guardianship system in the United States have been warning about a system that takes away the rights of elderly people – sometimes with little or no evidence – and then doesn’t protect them against abuse and theft.
In 2011, the third National Guardianship Summit recommended Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders (WINGS) for each state. The idea was to organize stakeholders of the guardianship system to draft policies for their states and to address the issues in their guardianship systems.
Connecticut and New Jersey do not have a WINGS chapter.
New York established its WINGS chapter in 2014.
Jean Callahan, the head of the New York WINGS chapter, said the chapter used to be funded, but currently does not receive any funding. She said she hosts calls every other month with an informal group of guardianship professionals.
New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are not represented in the National Guardianship Association.
In our area, several high-profile cases have drawn the public’s attention to the guardianship system, including the 2006 case of New York philanthropist and socialite Brooke Astor, which involved allegations that Astor’s son, who was also serving as Astor’s guardian, illegally enriched himself with assets from her estate.
In 2009, Astor’s son, Anthony Marshall, was found guilty of stealing millions of dollars from his mother before she died. He was sentenced to one to three years in prison.
More recently, media has covered the guardianship case of Manhattan resident and pop artist Peter Max. The daughter of the Holocaust survivor has contended that her father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, is being kept in forced isolation in what daughter Libra Max calls a “predatory guardianship.”
Throughout the years, those involved in the guardianship system have been calling for reform, but very little has been done.
The conservatorship case of Britney Spears awoke the country again to the failings in the system.
“For every celebrity story, there are dozens of lesser known stories in which guardians are engaged in unethical or possibly criminal conduct,” the National Center on Elder Abuse said following the wide media exposure of Spears’ case.
According to the center, guardianships, when done properly, can help vulnerable adults live out their lives with dignity and choice, but when done improperly, can cause financial exploitation and sometimes mental, physical or emotional abuse. Consequences for victims include loss of savings, loss of a home, forced move to an institutional setting, and deterioration of physical and mental health.
Every state has its own guardianship laws. A federal guardianship law does not exist, although a bill was introduced in Congress in 2021 entitled the Guardianship Accountability Act of 2021. The act is meant to help states improve guardianship oversight and data collection by designating a National Resource Center on Guardianship, authorizing grants for the purpose of developing state guardianship databases and establishing procedures for sharing background check information related to appointed guardians with other jurisdictions.
The bill has been referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Without federal intervention, state courts bear the responsibility for judicial appointments, administrative cost and monitoring of guardianships, yet lack the resources and expertise to do it adequately, according to the American Bar Association.
In 2016, the Government Accountability Office produced a study revealing that the extent of guardianship abuse nationally is unknown “due to limited data on key factors related to elder abuse by a guardian, such as the numbers of guardians serving older adults, older adults in guardianships, and cases of elder abuse by a guardian.”
In 2018, the United States Senate Special Committee on Aging conducted an investigation into the guardianship system in the country.
The committee determined “more must be done to protect individuals subject to guardianship.”
“The committee has identified persistent and widespread challenges that require a nationwide focus in order to ensure the guardianship system works on behalf of the individuals it is intended to protect,” the committee wrote in its report.
In September 2021, shortly after the exposure of the conservatorship of pop music icon Britney Spears, the U.S. Senate held a hearing entitled, “Toxic Conservatorships: Need for Reform.”
During the hearing, witnesses urged the federal government to assist the state courts by enacting a Guardianship Court Improvement Program, or GCIP.
The American Bar Association wrote a letter to Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Bridgeport), who was the Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution Committee on the Judiciary, reminding him of the Bar Association’s 2020 recommendation for Congress to create and fund a GCIP.
Eyewitness News wrote several times to Blumenthal, who also sits on the Senate’s Special Committee on Aging, inquiring whether any progress on a GCIP had been made since the September 2021 hearing. We did not receive a response.
In 2018, the New York State Senate held a roundtable discussion on the guardianship system.
A panel of lawyers, judges and nonprofits questioned whether the current legal system was prepared for the older adult wave that is coming, often called the “Silver Tsunami.”
The panelists warned legislators the system was suffering from lack of qualified guardians, outdated and inconsistent recording of data related to guardianships and poor oversight.
Judges expressed concerns over their ability to monitor compliance by guardians because of limited staffing. They also said the lack of resources prevented timely review of guardianship reports.
The panelists offered a variety of solutions, including getting healthcare companies involved, increasing public education about guardianship alternatives and earmarking more money to adequately compensate guardians for their work.
Guardianships require an exorbitant amount of time and qualified lawyers are sometimes unwilling to take cases in which the ward doesn’t have a lot of money because the lawyers are unable to bill a reasonable fee for their time.
Judge Arthur Diamond, who was the supervising judge of guardianship matters in Nassau County, recommended the state create a fund for the guardianship system in order to provide more oversight and better pay for lawyers who take on guardianship cases. Diamond told the legislators he had been asking for that reform for a while, but because it involves funding, he was told, “it really is not going to fly.”
Diamond said because of the lack of reforms, bad things were happening to people under guardianships.
For example, he said, “Somebody who has control of a bank account of an incapacitated person can do terrible things to that person without us knowing about it, until, often times, several years later,” he said.
“The state needs to support the system more than it is right now,” Broome County Surrogate Court Judge David Guy said.
Diamond warned legislators that guardianship filings had been going up every year.
“We are not prepared to handle what is coming soon,” he said. “Every part of the system is choking.”
Eyewitness News reached out repeatedly to the senators who were present at the hearing and who are still in the New York State Senate to ask them what progress they have made in the last five years on the issues they heard about in 2018.
Senator Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) and Senator James Tedisco (R-Clifton Park) did not get back to us.
A press representative for Senator Gustavo Rivera (D-Bronx) said Rivera was out of the country. We inquired when he would return. His office did not respond.
Eyewitness News found guardianship filings have gone up every year in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
As of December 2022, New York had 49,877 court-appointed guardianships and New Jersey had 36,515.
In Connecticut, an adult guardianship is referred to as a conservatorship.
According to the Probate Court Administrator, at the end of fiscal year 2021, the Connecticut Probate Court was providing oversight to 22,466 conserved individuals, a 9% increase over the end of fiscal year 2019.
In fact, guardianship filings are expected to increase every year across the country because people are living longer.
According to the Government Accountability Office, the number of older adults, those over age 65, is expected to nearly double in the United States by 2050.
In 2017, a group of guardianship stakeholders from across the country revised a universal act for states to adopt to reform their guardianship systems.
The Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship and Other Protective Arrangements Act, known as UGCOPAA , first drafted in 1969, is considered by many to be the gold-standard of how states should operate their guardianship and conservatorship systems.
Kohn, who was part of the re-drafting of the UGCOPAA, said, under the act, for example, guardians are required to tell family members and loved ones of their ward when the ward is moved to a different location or if the ward has a major change in their health.
“We have provisions that limit the guardian’s authority to restrict access to friends and family,” she explained. “They can’t do it without a court order.”
Kohn said the act also allows for people to bring grievances regarding a guardian directly to the judge without having to file complicated legal motions.
“It can be written on a scrap paper and the court has to actually read it,” Kohn said.
Kohn said the uniform act also includes a provision, which allows the court, instead of granting a guardianship, to enter an order for a particular issue. Perhaps, the vulnerable adult needs help selling their home or deciding whether to go into a nursing home. Under the UGCOPAA, a judge could enter a court proceeding to deal with one specific issue, rather than putting the person under a guardianship.
“That’s good for the individual, that’s certainly good for the state coffers – you don’t need ongoing intervention,” Kohn said. “Of course, it does not result in ongoing fees for a guardian.”
Maine and Washington are the only states that have fully adopted the UGCOPAA. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) has been urging states to adopt the UGCOPAA.
Eyewitness News reached out to the legislators from our area who would be in charge of knowing about the UGCOPAA and deciding whether it should be implemented into our local guardianship system. We asked the legislators, who are all the chairs or heads of the committees charged with dealing with guardianships, if they are aware of the act and if they would consider implementing it. Few of them got back to us.
In Connecticut, the following legislators did not respond to our questions: Senator Patricia Billie Miller (D-Stamford), Senator Rick Lopes (D-Berlin) and Representative Anne Hughes (D-Easton).
A spokesperson for Connecticut Representative Jane Garibay (D-Windsor), the chair of the Assembly’s Aging Committee, said Garibay did not want to comment.
In New York, the following legislators did not get back to us with a statement: Senator Patrick Gallivan (R-Elman), Senator Sue Serino (R-Hyde Park), Senator Rachel May (D-Syracuse), the Chair of the Senate’s Committee on Aging, Senator Samra Brouk (D-Rochester), Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther (D-Monticello), Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Flushing) and Assemblyman Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove).
New York State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), the chair of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, conducted a Zoom interview with investigative reporter Kristin Thorne to discuss the UGCOPAA.
“I think it’s time New York considers it too,” he said. “This issue has been ripe for reform for years.”
In New Jersey, the following legislators did not get back to us: Senator Joe Vitale (D-Woodbridge) and Senator Fred Madden Jr. (D-Turnersville).
New Jersey Assemblywoman Angela McKnight (D-Hudson), the chair of the Assembly’s Aging and Senior Services Committee, did issue a statement to Eyewitness News saying, “Adult guardianship is an important issue that impacts the lives of many New Jerseyans, especially our senior population and their loved ones. Any legislation that has the potential to protect the rights of our senior residents while still ensuring they are safe and have access to necessary care is worth looking into.”
According to a 2021 report by the American Bar Association, in the last 10 years, states have enacted nearly 400 adult guardianship bills, ranging from a complete revamping of their guardianship codes to minor changes in legal procedures.
Eyewitness News found legislative reforms in the Tri-State have been minor compared to other states.
Oregon and Alabama recently established statewide tasks forces on guardianships. In Colorado, guardians have to go through a background check. In Minnesota, the courts have established a bill of rights for people who are placed in a guardianship.
Some of the biggest reforms have been undertaken in Nevada where the court system funds and operates a Guardianship Compliance Office. Nevada also has a hotline for people to issue complaints against a guardian.
In New York, Christine Montanti, of Huntington, has been working with state legislators to pass Karilyn’s Law, named after her mother, Karilyn Montanti, who was taken over by a guardian in Florida.
Montanti has barely seen her mother because the guardian, Montanti’s sister, has restricted access to their mother.
“You feel like you’re being terrorized and there’s nothing you can do,” Montanti said. “This guardianship system is not cut out to what you think it is.”
Karilyn’s Law seeks to amend the state’s Article 81 Mental Hygiene Law, which governs guardianships, to stipulate that an immediate court hearing must be held before a guardian can terminate visitation rights.
Senator Anthony Palumbo (R-Riverhead) is sponsoring the bill.
“We want to see what we can do to truly reform the laws in New York State, so that unscrupulous guardians and those that would abuse the system are at least held accountable,” Palumbo said in an August roundtable on the guardianship system in New York.
Senator George Borello (R-Jamestown) also attended the roundtable.
He said, “Guardianships can protect vulnerable seniors and incapacitated adults and children. But just as a guardianship can be used as a shield to protect the vulnerable, and it can also be used as a weapon by feuding family members to punish their rivals. We have cases where adult children are being barred from seeing their sick and dying parents by a guardian.”
Joy Solomon, the head of The Weinberg Center for Elder Justice, based in Riverdale, said her agency has been working for years to combat guardianship abuse. In 2018, they produced a manual for legal professionals involved in guardianship proceedings.
“We don’t have enough oversight of guardians and the court is pretty significantly burdened by the volume and the oversight,” she said. “This is a place where there’s a lot of money, a lot of access, a lot of power and, when those things are present, there’s also a lot of players who can show up who may not be people with high integrity or the caliber that certainly does exist across the state. There’s definitely guardians who are abusing their wards, using their money in ways they would not have wanted, selling properties that should not have been sold.”
Solomon said making reforms in the guardianship system is not easy because of privacy concerns.
“It’s a system that’s complex,” she said. “Change is slow.”
But Solomon remains positive that most guardians in our area are doing the right thing.
“Probably for every bad case, we can point to cases where the guardianship really helped support a person,” she said.
In our area, small reforms have been made in the guardianship systems.
New Jersey has created a Guardianship Monitoring Program. Volunteers from across the state analyze guardian cases, identify discrepancies and notify the judge if they think disciplinary action against a guardian may be needed.
Critics have said while the program is a good asset for the people of New Jersey under guardianships, it is volunteer only and they argue the courts should be paying people to do that type of oversight.
In 2021, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul signed a law that expands an alternative to guardianships called supported-decision making.
Supported-decision making allows a person to maintain the ability to make decisions in their lives with a person they designate helping to support their decisions.
Here are resources related to guardianships in New York State:
To look up a guardian in New York State or the appointments made by a specific judge, click here.
If you have concerns about your guardianship case in New York, you can file a complaint here. You can also reach the Managing Inspector General for Fiduciary Appointments Milton Yu at 646-386-3515.
Here are resources related to guardianships in New Jersey:
To file a complaint against a guardian in New Jersey
For more information on the Guardianship Monitoring Program
Some wards in New Jersey are eligible for services through the Division of Developmental Disabilities
Here are resources related to guardianships in Connecticut:
To file a complaint against a guardian
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