Hollywood is in the business of entertainment, not education, and so it’s no surprise that they rarely stay true-to-fact when addressing nuanced social issues. Drama sells, after all; detailed explanation doesn’t. This said, two recent productions—I Care a Lot and Fatherhood—do a pretty good job of representing the potential horrors of the guardianship system and so it is worth addressing where they get it right, where they get it wrong, and, crucially, what you can do to avoid Hollywood-level tragedy in your own life.
A guardianship usually begins when a family member or social worker reports that an individual cannot properly care for themself. A guardian must be appointed by a court and, most often, a family member or loved one is chosen for the role. Guardianships come in many shapes and sizes but generally include the power to consent to medical care or treatment; purchase such necessities as food, clothes, cars, household items, and other personal items; arrange for education; and manage finances and bank accounts, make investments, hire professionals, etc. on behalf of the person under care (the “ward”).
Due to a guardian’s wide-ranging power and responsibility, it can sometimes be difficult for a family to agree on a suitable candidate. When this happens, the court may appoint a public guardian: a supposedly neutral individual who is hired to act in the ward’s best interest. As both I Care a Lot and Fatherhood demonstrate, this does not always happen.
Fatherhood portrays widowed father Matt Logelin’s attempts to raise baby daughter Maddy despite various complications and false starts. The film is a comedy and yet not all elements are funny. One of particularly tragic nature arises when Logelin’s mother-in-law Marion takes issue with his raw parenting skills and pushes to take custody of Maddy. The decision is neither in Logelin’s or Maddy’s best interest and yet the change in guardianship goes through and both father and daughter suffer as a result. Because Fatherhood is a light-hearted comedy and because Hollywood prefers happy endings, everything works out fine in the end, but this is rarely the case in real life.
I Care a Lot provides a far-less rosy portrayal of how guardianship designations can go wrong. Here, public guardian Marla Grayson exploits the system to gain control of her wards’ life and finances. By petitioning for and “emergency guardianship” and arranging support from physicians and long-term care facilities ahead of time, Grayson is able to quickly take control of her victims’ estates and then arrange to profit personally from the transaction. While this may sound like trumped-up Hollywood fiction, Grayson’s manipulative exploits mirror those of real-life public guardian April Parks, who The New Yorker reports preyed on hundreds of unsuspecting elders in pursuit of personal profit.
Avoiding abuse stemming from vulnerabilities in the guardianship system is, luckily, quite simple regardless of your state’s laws. By signing durable powers of attorney and health care proxies ahead of time, you are able to choose the person you would like to make both medical and financial decisions on your behalf and thereby avoid the risk of court intervention.
Contact the Estate Planning Law Group of Georgia