The film stars Academy Award nominee Rosamund Pike as Marla Grayson, a professional, court-appointed guardian who takes on dozens of elderly wards, including a wealthy retiree with no living heirs, played by two-time Academy Award winner Dianne Wiest. Grayson exploits the system to abuse her wards, stealing from them using “dubious but legal means.”
The situations depicted in the film hit very close to home for many, including one viewer, who has an 88-year-old mother, reporting that he was so disturbed, he had to turn it off.
“I Care A Lot” is causing an emotional reaction among many retirees and their family members, who could easily find themselves in a situation where an elderly loved one becomes incapacitated and needs to rely on a court-appointed guardian to make day-to-day decisions.
So how likely is it for someone be taken advantage of by those appointed to protect them at their most vulnerable moments?
The good news is, these situations are very rare, according to Maria Galante, a Trusts & Estates Attorney at Davidoff Hutcher & Citron LLP in New York. Ms. Galante specializes in guardianships and elder law, and in a recent video interview with Approach Financial, she said the reality is that “guardianship is a process that has several safeguards in place to avoid abuse.”
The courts take this process very seriously, according to Ms. Galante, and they are heavily involved with making sure guardians are doing right by their wards.
In addition to checkups and annual reports, the courts must give permission before a guardian can do things like sell properties, enter into contracts or pay the fees for any professional they hire on the ward’s behalf.
The type of professional guardian depicted in “I Care A Lot” undergoes a lot of scrutiny by judges in New York, where Ms. Galante practices.
The courts keep a list of those who wish to be professional guardians, subjecting them to background checks, and guardians also have to be bonded in New York State, meaning that assets are insured and can be replaced.
For those wishing to be proactive and avoid the potential for guardianship abuses like the ones in the film, there are steps that retirees and their families can take now to protect themselves.
“Nobody but you can handle your financial affairs, so what I tell everybody is to make sure you have a Power of Attorney and a Healthcare Proxy in place,” Ms. Galante said, adding that these are simple documents that every state has.
A Healthcare Proxy gives someone the power to make medical decisions like choosing doctors and approving procedures and medications, while a Power of Attorney gives the power to make financial decisions, including filing taxes, paying bills and going to the bank.
Making sure this paperwork is in place now can help to avoid a court intervention later on, said Ms. Galante. “All those decisions are in your power while you’re well.”
She also advises clients to include language that stipulates who they would like to be their guardian, should that become necessary, which makes their wishes known to the courts and offers judges some guidance.
“It’s important to appoint someone who you trust, not just a random person who was nice to you. You’re giving this person power so they have to be responsible. You want to make sure to pick the right person,” said Ms. Galante. “And if things change, or you change your mind, you can immediately revoke that one and appoint someone else.”