guardianship

Movies generally are intended to entertain or enlighten audiences. But sometimes the two functions become muddled. For example, the Netflix original movie, I Care a Lot, likely was made simply to entertain people. However, some viewers may find the movie influences their opinions about the treatment of the elderly, particularly related to guardians and guardianships. If you have not seen the movie yet,  please be aware that this blog contains spoilers.

A Synopsis of the Movie

I Care a Lot presents professional guardian Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike). With a little help from her network of health care professionals, Grayson targets elderly people with no friends or family members to care about their future care – or complain about Grayson’s treatment of them. The movie specifically covers the guardianship proceeding for a woman named Jennifer Peterson, played by Dianne Wiest.

After a whirlwind hearing before a friendly judge, Grayson is appointed guardian of Ms. Peterson. She shows up at Peterson’s home with a court order, whisks her away, and deposits her in a nursing home operated by one of her accomplices. Only after Grayson locates and sells all of Peterson’s possessions does she learn that someone does care what happens to the older woman– her son Roman, played by Peter Dinklage. He has the power to go after Grayson, but not through the courts because he is also a criminal.

Roman tries various unlawful means of rescuing his mother, with no success. Even physical violence does not deter Grayson. Instead, she seems more interested in joining Roman in a profitable joint venture.

I won’t spoil the ending of the movie for you, but let’s look at some of the inaccuracies depicted in the film.

Guardianship Hearings Follow the Law

In I Care a Lot, Grayson holds a guardianship hearing without notifying the ward or any other interested parties. But under Pennsylvania law, potential wards have rights, including the right to participate in the process as much as possible.

If you believe someone needs a guardian, you must file a petition with the court. The alleged incapacitated person is entitled to at least 20 days’ notice of the hearing. This gives other parties time to hire counsel of their choice, prepare a defense and object. Unlike I Care a Lot, guardianship hearings are not held without properly notifying everyone with an interest in the outcome.

The respondent to the guardianship petition must attend the hearing unless unable to because of medical reasons. If necessary, the hearing can even be held at the respondent’s residence. In I Care a Lot, Ms. Peterson did not attend the hearing because Grayson never notified her of the guardianship proceeding.

Courts often appoint an attorney to represent the respondent’s interests during the proceeding. At the hearing, the judge will hear and consider medical evidence of incapacity before appointing a guardian. In fact, the respondent’s attorney might ask for an independent evaluation to confirm any incapacity. Also, the respondent has the right to appeal the court’s decision. Of course, Ms. Peterson did not have a lawyer who could ask for an independent medical opinion on her condition.

Courts Maintain Oversight

Pennsylvania guardianship appointments contain vital information, including the guardian’s powers and responsibilities. Authority can be broad or limited. In the movie, Grayson appeared to have unlimited power over her wards with no accountability.

Like Grayson in I Care a Lot,  guardians must locate and assess all the ward’s property. However, they typically have to seek court approval before selling or disposing of valuable property. The proceeds are then used for the ward’s benefit, not to line the guardian’s pockets.

Guardians must also submit detailed reports about the ward to the court, at least once a year. The reports cover the ward’s treatment, living conditions, income, and assets. Courts review these reports. If there are questionable activities judges will not hesitate to bring a guardian before the Court to explain their actions. Typically, the guardian prepares an inventory of the ward’s property and income shortly after being appointed. Upon termination of the guardianship, the guardian must present a final report to the court. Judges can dismiss a guardian who fails to meet his or her obligations to the ward.

Finally, guardians often have to petition the court to use a ward’s fees to pay for their care. So, a guardian who needs money for a ward’s nursing home will ask the court to use the ward’s estate for this purpose. This leaves a paper trail and can alert the court to any improper use of funds. Again, Ms. Grayson had free rein over Ms. Peterson’s financial affairs, which is unlikely under a Pennsylvania guardianship.

Guardians Are Not Well Paid

The system is set up so that guardians would find it difficult to steal from wards, especially with a judge looking over their shoulder. In my experience, most guardians are caring, compassionate people who keep their ward’s best interests at heart.

Guardians can receive payment for their services, but the rates are low. Here, again, is another area with court oversight. To get paid, guardians must ask the court to use the ward’s funds to pay themselves. In some cases, Medicaid may pay a small stipend to guardians. The amount a court would approve coupled with the stipend would fall well below the amount Grayson was being “paid” by her wards.

Potential Aftereffects of I Care a Lot  on Guardianships

Because this movie inaccurately depicts how guardianships work, some people might be afraid to report someone who needs help. Potential wards could fear an unscrupulous guardian will steal their possessions. People who want to serve as guardians might worry about being accused of misusing a ward’s funds. But one favorable thing to come from the movie is that people might look for guardianship alternatives.

The power of attorney remains one of the best ways to avoid a guardianship. Signing one does not mean you will definitely avoid a guardianship but it can avoid one in many circumstances.  Further, if name someone you trust to act under a power of attorne and later need a guardian, the law compels the Court to consider them first as your guardian, rather than a stranger. But if you do need help managing your affairs, and no guardian is needed, it’s available from someone you trust and have chosen to be your agent.

Attorney Robert Slutsky was one of the first lawyers in Pennsylvania to focus on elder law issues, including Medicaid. Since 1992, he has helped countless people find solutions that work for their individual situations.

Please give us a call at (610) 940-0650 or schedule a consultation on our website. We help clients throughout Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, Bucks, and Philadelphia Counties and beyond.

For a listing of skilled nursing and rehabilitation facilities, please check out our Chester County PA Elder Law Directory and Senior Guide online at:

www.chescoseniorguide.com.

www.montcoseniorguide.com

www.delcoseniorguide.com

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