Sam Sugar: The Risks, The Truth, and The Dangers of Probate Guardianships

About Sam Sugar: Dr. Sugar is a medical doctor and a founder and president of Americans Against Abuse of Probate Guardianships, AAAPG, an organization designed to expose the corruption of the nation’s guardianship systems. Dr. Sugar received his medical degree from the Abraham Lincoln College of Medicine at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He achieved certification as a specialist in internal medicine from the American Board of Internal Medicine and was distinguished as a fellow of the American College of Physicians. He has served as a director for managed care at Evanston, Northwestern Healthcare, and is taught at both Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and the Chicago Medical School. In 2014, after experiencing the horrors of guardianship firsthand, Dr. Sugar created Americans Against Abuse of Probate Guardianships. 

In this episode, Steve and Sam Sugar discuss:

1. What was the horror of guardianship that you experienced firsthand?

  • When we discovered that this guardianship process had been subverted to a racket, basically a very profitable racket for the entire for-profit guardianship industry, which includes the court insiders, the judge, the lawyers, the guardians, and an army of people downstream who profit from it, by virtue of straw man sales, underhanded kickbacks, and the like. It’s a gigantic industry, it’s enormously profitable and the people in it will do anything to keep it going.

2. Was that the driving force for you to create the Americans Against Abuse of Probate Guardianship?

  • In the midst of the early portion of this ordeal, my wife and I kind of came to the conclusion, we’re just really unlucky, this probably only happened to us. There are probably no other people in the world that could have the bad luck to run into a judge like that, lawyers like that, and horrible people in that system. 

    I was invited out of the blue to attend a political breakfast for someone who was running for the school board where I lived and it was a free breakfast so I went. While I was there, I raised my hand and I said, “Do you have a position on probate guardianship,” which, in retrospect, was a crazy question to ask, But he answered it as best he could. And then I was stopped afterward by another woman, who said, “Why did you ask about that?” One thing led to another and we discovered that the two of us were involved in that. Then two became four and four became eight and now it’s about 1000 families, not individuals, families, who are on our website, mailing list, and social media. 

3. Is this unique to just the retirement states of the country such as Florida, Arizona, California, and Nevada?

  • Well, it’s certainly present in every state to a varying degree and I will tell you, much to my surprise, Over the years, the absolute worst state in the country, which is saying a lot, is Michigan, of all places. Their system is absolutely breathtakingly corrupt, everybody knows it, and nobody’s willing to do anything about it. Over the years, our work has spawned an advocacy group in Michigan, which is really very well populated, very active, and getting great results called The Voice run by one of our advocates. 

4. Can you tell our injured senior community a little little bit about what guardianship is?

  • Guardianship is a legal process by which a court can remove the rights of someone who hasn’t broken the law, or done anything wrong. Someone can be alleged, usually by a lawyer, to be in need of protection from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Usually, the lawyer brings an allegation, an unsubstantiated or unverified unsworn, just one lawyer talking, saying, “Your Honor, there’s someone in our community in your jurisdiction, who may be being abused, neglected or exploited,” period. That’s the magic sentence. At that point, the judge has the ability and the initiative to appoint what’s called a substitute decision-maker. That is an individual who ultimately will be given what’s called letters of guardianship, at which point that guardian has wards and a ward needs a guardian. So that’s what you call a person who’s in the situation, either an allegedly incapacitated ward. The guardian then owns that person and I want to say that again, for emphasis a ward is the property of his or her guardian, and the guardian can do pretty much whatever they want to do, as long as they have a court order with that person, that’s a guardian of the person, or with their money that’s a guardian of the estate, or both. 

5.  Is there a distinction between kinds of guardians?

  • There’s a huge distinction between professional, and family guardianships. Family guardianships do constitute the great majority of guardianships in the country. In the last 30 years or so, there has arisen an entire group, a class of what’s called professional for-profit guardians. Why are there so many professional guardians? In Florida, I’m talking about now, because nobody knows. The answer is like what Willie Sutton said, “that’s where the money is.” Not only do we not know how many professional guardians there are in the United States, but we also don’t even know how many Guardianships there are in the United States. The best guess, by the GAO is somewhere between a million and a half and 4 million in Florida, where the numbers have been provided to us by one of the premier clerks of court, who actually surveyed all 57 clerks of court in Florida. There are somewhere between 50 and 65,000 active Guardianships today in Florida, and they’re being created at a rate of between seven and 8000 new ones a year.

6. Are all these 55 60,000 guardianships in Florida? 

  • I wish I could give you those numbers, but because court records for guardianships are considered mental health issues. The court records are typically sequestered, meaning that people like us can’t research these numbers. Although they do exist. The Department of Elderly Affairs knows all this information but is constitutionally forbidden to share it. So this is a system and a business that generates many billions of dollars a year for its “perpetrators” if you want to use that clause. If you have the ability to be recognized by the court as a professional guardian. People ask what does it take? I thought that’s a great job. What do I need to do? Do I have to have a graduate degree? Do I need certification? Well, the answer is no. Here are the requirements generally speaking to be a guardian and in Florida. Ready? Yep, got to be a team. You got to have to have a high school diploma, a GED is good enough. You can’t have had a conviction for a criminal offense for felony. Parking tickets are okay and you have to complete a course that’s supposed to be 40 hours long, but can be completed in a weekend at a junior college. If you pay a few bucks, then all you have to do is submit your application and not lie about previous bankruptcies, which we’ve seen done repeatedly, and boom, you are a guardian. In order to become a professional guardian and recognized as such, you have to have been appointed at least three wards.

7. Once someone gets certified, what is the level of regulation or oversight by the state?

  • Part of the problem was to an abject failure of monitoring and supervision of not only guardianships, not only the lawyers but the judges and even though Florida statute and statutes in every state really provide a mechanism for supposed oversight over the courts and these guardianships, we realized that the laws were insufficient, and we went down to our state capitol in Tallahassee, and we were successful two years in a row to change the statute 744, to include more monitoring, oversight, supervision, and to create a new agency called the Office of Public and Professional Guardians, the OPPG, and those pieces of legislation were accepted unanimously. Ultimately, there was applause in the chamber of the legislature, the combined legislature. If you ask me now, five years or four years later, what difference they’ve made? The answer is zero. 

8. What are some ways that individuals can prevent becoming award of a guardian and also the families, what they can do to prevent a guardianship?

  • In the first place, make sure you have valid and recent advanced directives. Advanced directives are two types of documents. One is a durable power of attorney for your financial matters and the other one is a healthcare power of attorney. To determine who you want to make medical decisions for you at a time where you can’t, those have to be perfect. Most importantly, in your durable power of attorney, there must be a clause that says something like, “I specifically prohibit any court, or any other governmental entity from appointing for me, any professional guardian, at any time, for any reason, in perpetuity” because if you don’t have that, in your advanced directives, I’ve seen one case where a judge has said, you know, “I’m looking at these advanced directives, and it doesn’t say anything about I shouldn’t appoint a guardian. So I will.” You need to make sure that those advanced directives are easily available and retrievable by people you trust, you can’t hide them in a safe, because when you need them, they won’t be able to be found. That’s the first thing. The second thing is the hard part, solve your family disputes, I cannot tell you how important that is. If you’ve got family members, even a distant aunt or uncle or cousin or niece or nephew, they can start this process even if they haven’t seen you for 10 years, if they’re what’s called interested parties. Heal your wounds, heal your divisions and lessen the likelihood that somebody is going to go after you when you’re at your weakest.

9. What is really the reality of how these are actually becoming guardianships?

  • The really sad reality that strikes me is that the very institutions and people that are supposed to be assisting those who are in need possibly are where the worst guardianship abuses take place. For example, hospitals, a large number of hospitals, hospitalized individuals, who maybe broke their hip had a heart attack had a stroke, on dialysis, is visited by friendly social workers, or other hospital staff who are concerned, “gosh, this person hasn’t had a visitor in a day or two. They must be all alone. They must need help and I must need the bounty that I’ll collect by reporting it to a lawyer.” That happens a lot. These guardians hang out and can be found in senior centers, in doctors offices, in clinics, in daycare centers, in dialysis centers, anywhere where an elderly frail person can be found. You will find individuals complicit in this corruption, including doctors, nurses, social workers, ER technicians, therapists because disgustingly there are bounties for referring them. So are they solicited by these professional guardians? I can’t prove that, but I strongly suspect it. Okay. Not just the guardians, but their attorneys as well.

10. Are their family lawyers also part of this whole scheme?

  • No, actually, one has to understand who the lawyers and probate really are and there are two distinct classes of Estate Attorneys and probate attorneys. The first is your garden variety estate attorney, whose primary job is to create documents and create documents that can be relied upon in court and that clearly states the wishes of their client. There’s a second variety of lawyers that are called litigators. They’re the ones who challenged those doctors. They’re the ones who have this ability to bill unlimited hours.

Did you know that a judge can divorce you during a proceeding to take away your right to inherit from a spouse?” —  Sam Sugar

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Show notes by Podcastologist: Kristen Braun

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