Statewide Legislation Aims to Reform Guardianship System and Protect Vulnerable Seniors
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In the wake of distressing incidents exposing the demise, neglect, and financial exploitation totaling millions of dollars among elderly Floridians, as revealed through the criminal convictions of former Florida guardians Rebecca Fierle and Traci Hudson, state legislators have introduced comprehensive legislation to overhaul Florida’s guardianship system.
Fierle, arrested in 2019, was charged with causing the death of her ward, Steven Stryker, through the removal of his feeding tube and the signing of a do-not-resuscitate order.
Less than a year prior, Fierle had been granted full authority over Stryker by a judge in less than three minutes, despite Stryker having appointed a close friend to be his durable power of attorney and health care surrogate.
Fierle made nearly $4 million as a guardian, double-billing her wards, patients, and AdventHealth–money she did not report to the courts. Fierle’s case took a shocking and morbid turn when investigators found the cremated remains of nine people in her Orlando office. After a trial concluded with a hung jury, Fierle ultimately opted for a plea deal, accepting a reduced charge of neglect of an elderly person.
Traci Hudson, another former Florida professional guardian, was sentenced last year to 8.5 years in prison for 11 counts of grand theft, five counts of exploitation of an elderly or disabled person and four counts of perjury. Hudson, a former president of the Guardianship Association of Pinellas County, obtained power of attorney and guardianship over multiple Tampa Bay seniors, then stole money from them.
Shocking revelations during the investigation uncovered Hudson was writing herself checks from her ward’s accounts, billing wards for more than 24 hours of work in a day, paying excessive commissions to realtors, and altering inventories. Hudson pleaded guilty to the felony charges following a three-year investigation.
These high-profile cases underscore systemic issues within the guardianship system, compelling Florida lawmakers to propose legislative reforms aimed at preventing future abuses and protecting vulnerable individuals.
Proposed legislation, Senate Bill 48 by Senator Garcia (R) and House Bill 887 by Representative Harris (D), represents a critical response to the urgent need for reform within the guardianship system. Key reforms in the bill include increased oversight, safeguards, and court monitoring processes, aligning with recommendations from the Guardianship Improvement Task Force. The legislation aims to address the systemic issues that allowed individuals like Traci Hudson and Rebecca Fierle to exploit vulnerable wards.
Ken Burke, Pinellas County Clerk of Court and Comptroller, and Chair of the Guardianship Improvement Task Force, emphasized the broken state of the guardianship system in letters of support for the legislation. “Better protections are desperately needed for these vulnerable wards,” Burke wrote.
The urgency for change is evident in the bipartisan efforts of these lawmakers, as well as with the growing grassroots coalition Floridians for Guardianship Reform who support the legislation. The coalition includes dozens of individual advocates and organizations such as Florida National Organization for Women (NOW), Center for Estate Administration Reform (CEAR), Families Against Court Travesties (FACTs), and Florida Alliance for Retired Americans (FLARA).
“I fear the word guardianship more than the word cancer,” said advocate Hillary Hogue. As Hogue recently told WP, she became an unpaid citizen watchdog after her own horrible guardianship experience. To get her father released from one, she paid over $100,000 in legal fees. Hogue is one of the dozens of advocates working in coalition to support the legislation.
“With over 4 million residents over the age of 65 in Florida, the need for urgent reform is undeniable,” said Kat Duesterhaus, Legislative Director of Florida National Organization for Women. “Our imperative is clear – to prevent ongoing abuse, safeguard lives, and uphold the fundamental rights, dignity, and autonomy of those who find themselves incapacitated.”
The coalition provides the following resource for Floridians who want to support the reform: www.linktr.ee/GuardianshipReform.
Note: Due to a drafting error, Garcia and Harris’ bills are titled “Karilyn’s Law,” and are to be renamed “Doris’ Law,” as Harris confirmed to Florida Politics. Read more about Doris’ story here as covered by ABC’s Action News I-Team, who in their own words have been “covering Florida’s broken professional guardianship system for more than a decade, uncovering instances of isolation, exploitation and abuse of Florida’s most vulnerable seniors by court-appointed guardians in our ongoing series ‘The Price of Protection.'” We thank all local, state, and national media for your steadfast coverage of guardianship victimization and proposed reforms.
For media inquiries, please contact:
Kat Duesterhaus, Legislative Director
Legislative@flnow.org / 772-267-6353