Investigation Opened into Miami-Dade Guardianship Program

Daniel Perodin, Staff Writer

On March 8, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced her request for the Inspector General to investigate the Miami-Dade Guardianship Program for potential fraud. The investigation stems from allegations that guardians sold their wards’ homes to a realtor, who in turn flipped the houses and sold them for profit. 

The Guardianship Program of Miami-Dade County is a nonprofit that oversees the property of people a court deems incapacitated. Specifically, the program serves those members of the community whose friends and family are unavailable or unwilling to be their guardian, and who do not have the money for a private guardian. The program receives $2.7 million annually in county funding. While the law permits the guardians to sell their ward’s home, the nature of recent allegations against the program has placed it under scrutiny. Wards did not receive any money from the sale of their homes. Before Levine Cava’s call for an investigation, Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins called for an investigation on March 7. Higgins expressed concern over the usage of taxpayer money on a program that many claim defrauded some of the most vulnerable in Miami-Dade.

The real estate company in question, Express Homes, denies wrongdoing. The Executive Director of the Guardianship Program of Miami-Dade County Carlos McDonald says that the program has stayed within the law in all of its home sales. Following the announcement of an investigation, Levine Cava halted funding for the guardianship program. The county has since restored that funding, with the condition that the guardianship pause its home sales. The investigation remains ongoing. 

Executive Director at the Center for Estate Administration Reform — an organization dedicated to advocating for dependent adults and those exploited by the guardianship system — Rick Black believes that guardianship fraud has its roots in a flawed institution.

Guardianship frauds are routine. The oversight is too lax and the opportunity to exploit is too inviting for it not to happen. As a result, this industry has drawn the ‘white collar’ criminal element like bears to honey. This is a $1 trillion a year market opportunity with almost no risk to the criminal element that operates within it because they all operate under the ‘color of law’ once a guardianship order is granted,” Black said.

Black notes that the legal system’s failure to hold fraudsters accountable perpetuates the victimization of wards. 

“The frauds start when the guardian, and their attorney, knowingly lies about the respondent or their loved ones to gain an order for guardianship. Whether the guardian overcharges the ward by $50.00 or takes a few items from the home of their ward during your first scouring of their residence, and doesn’t account for them on the inventory, they are committing fraud. From there, the frauds only get more outrageous,” Black said.

 “This system, fully sponsored and protected by attorneys, court orders and the judges who issue them, has demonstrated a unique inability to discipline its most criminal participants over the last 50 years.” 

Black also cites the Florida Bar’s role in protecting guardians who take advantage of their wards. The Florida Bar has advocated confidentiality for the information on the state’s guardianship cases, something that opponents believe adds to the lack of transparency in the system.

“Guardianship is a profit center for the Florida Bar. Their leaders are fully committed to seeing it grow for all members, good or bad. The Bar also knows once a judge (also a fellow Bar member) orders to empower a fraudster all members make more money. Attorneys make far more money off a dysfunctional court system than they ever would a transparent and accountable one,” Black said.

Approximately 1,500 people receive services from the Guardianship Program of Miami-Dade County. The recent controversy has led to calls for reform, which Black sees as necessary for change to happen.

Criminal investigations are also required to reduce the victimization. Florida city, county and state law enforcement long ago declared guardianship frauds as a ‘civil’ matter and left prosecution to private attorneys. Even in the most outrageous cases that they have investigated the convictions were for the most part superficial. The last three Florida Attorney Generals have made it apparent they will not prioritize criminal investigations of attorneys blessed by probate judges,” Black said

Black believes that the Florida legislature must take action where the judiciary branch will not. He says stronger laws against guardianship fraud will protect Florida’s most vulnerable.

Maintaining the status quo for their most predatory members is the goal of state Bar leaders.  Until the legislature challenges that reality and law enforcement investigates crimes by attorneys, nothing will improve,” Black said.