Our 'Exceptional' Guardian Advocacy Journey, Part 2Submitted by Financial Advisors in Tampa and St. Petersburg, FL | CFO on May 10th, 2019
Our 'Exceptional' Guardian Advocacy Journey, Part 2
Author: Scott G. Russell, CFP®
I probably started researching the steps needed for my wife and me to become a Guardian Advocate for our daughter off and on when she was in her early teens and more so when she got to be around 16. Yes, I suffer from two things, first is worrying about things way too early and the second, being over analytical. Although these attributes torment my wife, they come in handy as a CFP® and partner in a wealth management firm. During my research, I tried to view things from the perspective of someone that doesn't have the experience I have in understanding legal terms, etc. and without the resources I have.
So, as any high-end sophisticated professional would do, I started my research using………. Google. When searching "Guardian Advocate in Florida", I pulled up a myriad of tantalizing tidbits on the subject, mostly from law practice sites providing a high level overview but no specifics regarding how to do it. If we are planning to give it a go without an attorney, there really wasn't anything at the time that walked you through the specifics of the process step by step, at least not in a fashion that most people could understand. For most folks, the thought of navigating the court system with an attorney is intimidating enough let alone without one. (Heck, you can't flip through your cable channels once without hitting a tv drama depicting how brutal the court system can be…)
Since I wasn't finding a lot online, I started calling around (e.g. multiple free legal services, Pinellas County Clerk's Office, PARC, Pinellas County School System, etc..). None of these places could provide details on how to navigate the Guardian Advocate process. However, one person relayed that they knew of a person that had attended some training and tries to help parents out (it was like the old saying, I know a guy that knows a guy...it felt like I was trying to get legal information on the black market). Anyhow, this gentleman I got in contact with (but never met in person) was great! He didn't hold any position remotely related to this process but did come in contact with parents in our situation and out of the goodness of his heart wanted to help them because he knew there wasn't a lot of readily available information out there. He had some photocopies of some forms, put a packet together in a manila envelope, and left it at the front desk of the office where he worked (again, it was like I was part of some shady espionage scheme). The packet was great but the copies and post-it notes still didn't give me a complete warm and fuzzy feeling. I wanted to be sure about process.
At this point I knew where my 'informant' originally received his training and around that same time someone gave me a flyer for that same in-person training. I believe they hold this training about 5 times a year around different parts of Pinellas County. It was called Guardian Advocacy: A Parent's Perspective. Diane Sare and Barbara Shannon taught it. The training was great. Diane was not only a parent that went through the process; she helped develop the process for other parents to follow. The training walked you through which forms to submit and when to submit them. The catch with their training is they ask parents not to pass on the information to other parents. I understand their reasoning though and won't pass on the forms and processes they outlined. I'm probably wrong on this but it seems like the entire Guardian Advocacy process is kind of an exception based on precedent. The court can at any time require us to have an attorney. If too many parents doing things incorrectly are making it difficult on the courts, I believe the trainer's assumption is that they could possibly make families have to acquire attorneys, thus limiting access to Guardian Advocacy for many needy families.
How did it all work out for us? Although I was previously told you cannot begin the process until your child turns 18, I found out from the Pinellas County Clerk's website that you may begin the process six months prior to your child's 18th birthday. I thought great, they figured out that it makes sense to complete this process prior to the 18th birthday so that you can have everything in order prior the possibility of having any issues (e.g. once our child turns 18, HIPAA rules technically prevent our child's doctors from working with us). About five months out from my daughter's birthday, I went to the Pinellas County Probate office and sat down with a clerk. It was mid-day with no wait…nice! The gentleman took my forms that I had completed and quietly processed. He then called to get a hearing date/time and they booked a date about four weeks out (there was a little delay due to the holidays). I was in and out in less than 40 minutes!
A couple of weeks later we received a call from someone informing us that we actually had to wait until our daughter turns 18 to have the hearing. Subsequently, we booked a new hearing date on the day following her 18th birthday. (I suppose waiting until they turn 18 isn't a huge deal but I'm still not sure why we can't wrap things up prior. Anyhow….). Part of the process is that the hearing summons must be delivered to the ward (my daughter) by the County Sheriff. I've heard they'll sometimes deliver early morning at the house or even to the school, if applicable. I included with my other documents a letter stating that we would appreciate it if whomever was going to deliver the summons would coordinate it through my wife or I, so that we could prevent my daughter from being freaked out that a sheriff's deputy wanted to speak to her. (I should state that we communicated with our daughter throughout this entire process to set expectations and to make sure she was comfortable. That said, I just envisioned a deputy in uniform walking into my daughter's class not going so well.).
Well, the coordination part didn't happen. About two months later I received a call from a deputy that he was at my house. Luckily, I was on the way home with my daughter and we were only a few minutes away. When we arrived, the deputy got out of his unmarked car (glad it wasn't a patrol car) and approached us with the summons. He was great! It was obvious this wasn't his first rodeo, so to speak. He was very polite and spoke to my daughter in a very gentle manner. He provided a description of what the document was for and asked her if she understood. She said yes. My daughter struggles with anxiety issues but this was no big deal for her. I couldn't be happier with how the deputy handled things.
About a week prior to the hearing, my daughter's court appointed attorney reached out to us to set up a time to meet her. Her preference was to meet her at school, so she could 'observe' her. The attorney met my daughter and from what we understand from her, they met in an office for maybe 15 minutes or so. My daughter couldn't really provide specifics about what they discussed but it sounded like mostly small talk. I did ask her if the woman asked if she wanted us to continue to help her make decisions and she relayed yes. The attorney reached out again a couple of days later to make sure my daughter was coming to the hearing (which was always the plan) and to request that we bring the Dr.'s evaluation.
We arrived at the courthouse about 45 minutes early (which was good since we went in the wrong building first and the fact my wife accidentally had a butter knife in her purse, which was found by the security scanner... LOL). While waiting outside of the General Magistrate's chambers, the clerk for the Magistrate brought us a form to complete. Among other things on the form, it asked us for my wife's and my social security numbers and the addresses where we resided back to 1978! (Note: we were in an area where we were requested to have our phones turned off, so you can't call someone by using your life line!) We knew our current and previous address (25 years worth) but gave them generalities on the previous addresses. The clerk said that was fine.
When we were called in, we were led to a small conference room. The Magistrate sat at a desk and we sat at a small conference table with my daughter's attorney. In the corner of the room was another court attendant. The Magistrate confirmed our identities and the fact that we were seeking for my wife and I both to have guardianship. She made a point to let us know that although we would be co-guardians, we could act independently if the other was not available. The Magistrate asked us if we had submitted fingerprint cards, which we had not and I'm not sure where along the process we would have submitted them. She subsequently waived the requirement with the agreement of the attorney.
The Magistrate had copies of the forms we had submitted and verified that we were looking to assume 9 rights for our daughter. There were two additional rights that were not on the template we used, voting and driving. We verbally relayed that we did not want to remove those rights from our daughter. The Magistrate alluded to the fact that parents use different templates. The Magistrate also had a copy of the Dr.'s evaluation, although the attorney either didn't have access to the copy or just didn't review it in advance. The Magistrate specifically asked about the diagnoses. I brought two additional copies of the report and highlighted the pertinent items (i.e. IQ score, diagnoses, recommendation by the Dr. for guardianship, and the Dr.'s name and title, etc.). The Magistrate was satisfied.
The Magistrate asked if our daughter had any assets. I informed her that she did not but I would notify the court if she eventually acquired assets. Since I had not done so already, the Magistrate put as a requirement that we submit an application for social security income and for APD services for our daughter (FYI- we would not have qualified for SSI prior to my daughter turning 18 due to my wife's and my income. I probably should have already applied for APD services but had heard the waiting list was so long it didn't even seem likely to receive services). She and the attorney agreed to waive the guardianship training for my wife and I. I assume because our daughter did not have any assets. The Magistrate and the attorney also agreed to waive the 10-day grace period before the guardianship would be effective.
The Magistrate gave a high level overview of the annual reporting requirements. She said we should be receiving a schedule from the court regarding the requirements. She said it would be less burdensome for us to use either our daughter's IEP for that year or the case report form APD. We don't get regular IEPs since our daughter is in private school, which is why the Magistrate encouraged us to apply for APD services. She said there was also information on www.pinellasclerk.org if we had to prepare our own care plan update.
All in all, I think the process went very smooth. My wife and I kept our answers brief. The only additional question I had for the Magistrate, when asked, was whether or not my wife and I could delegate our authority if we were not readily available, like being out of the country on vacation. Neither the Magistrate nor the attorney thought we could but this is an item I'm going to research further. The Magistrate commented that we were more prepared than some attorneys (I think due to the volumes of medical and school records my wife and I brought. Did I mention that my wife was a project manager for many years, so documentation is NEVER an issue in our house). I appreciated the fact that the Magistrate and the attorney did not discuss the details of the diagnoses. We were in and out of the preceding within about 30 minutes.
The following day we received an email from the assistant of the General Magistrate. The email contained three documents:
1. Magistrate's Findings and Recommended Order on Petition for Appointment of Co-Guardian Advocates
2. Order Approving Report and Recommendation of General Magistrate Appointing Guardian Advocate or Co-Guardian Advocates
3. Letters of Guardian Advocate
So, what advice do I have for other 'exceptional' parents? First, remember our experience might be very different than yours since I'm sure courts differ, as does how each General Magistrate conducts his/her hearings. That said, don't wait to the last minute to start looking into the process. If your child has been attending a school for children with exceptionalities, ask the principal if they know of any resources to help in the process. Of course, if you are in the Pinellas County area, look into the training I described previously in my blog. If you're not in our area, you might need to call around to some different services in your community to see if you can find your own 'informant' or local training. I did find a site recently that offers online classes to parents. The cost was about $500. I hate to name the site as I have no knowledge of how good it is or if it is worth the cost.
For us, we're going to continue to provide the best support we can for our daughter and make sure we turn in our annual reports to the court. I'll be sure to blog about our experience applying for SSI and APD services for our daughter.
Scott G. Russell, CFP®
Concierge Financial Organization
3637 4th Street N., Suite 210
St. Petersburg, FL 33704
The information provided in this newsletter is educational in nature and is not intended to be construed as, legal, tax or investment advice and does not necessarily represent the views of the presenting party. Specific federal and state laws relevant to a particular situation may affect the applicability, accuracy or completeness of this information. Material presented is believed to be from reliable sources, but its accuracy is not guaranteed. If additional information is needed, the reader is advised to seek professional services.
Securities and investment advisory services offered through Royal Alliance Associates, Inc. (RAA), member FINRA/SIPC. RAA is separately owned and other entities and/or marketing names, products or services referenced here are independent of RAA. Registered Branch # 813-374-9676.