“I don’t want nobody to give me nothing. Just open up the door and I’ll get it myself.” That line from the James Brown R&B classic exemplified Aunt Lillie’s philosophy. She loved singing and was quick to share advice on self-reliance: “If I was able to do it, you should be able to do it.”
Growing up in North Carolina, Lillie saved for college by working as a babysitter, at a hotel and by singing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. She achieved the American dream: marrying her college sweetheart, earning a doctorate and becoming supervisor of instruction for public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland — one of the wealthiest counties in America.
In 2011, at 83, Lillie was independently living in Palm Coast, Florida — cooking, shopping and driving her sports Mercedes, a gift from her late husband. We flew in from New York to celebrate Christmas — Mom, me, and my brother, sister and nephew.
A distant family ‘friend’ from bygone years invited Lillie to visit him in Winter Garden. We found out later that he had taken her phone and changed her mailing address and medication. He knew she had no family in Florida and her only son was ill. After Lillie’s son died, the ‘friend’ filed for guardianship without us knowing.
Weeks later, a chain of events began that would change our lives forever. A distant family “friend” from bygone years invited Lillie to visit him in Winter Garden. We found out later that he had taken her phone and changed her mailing address and medication. He knew she had no family in Florida and her only son was ill. After Lillie’s son died, the “friend” filed for guardianship without us knowing.
What is guardianship?
A guardianship is intended to protect a vulnerable person. However, unnecessary guardianships are increasingly being used as a means for financial gain. A 2023 U.S. Senate hearing highlighted that in many cases, “guardianship is a blunt legal tool that transfers all decision-making power about a life of a person to someone else” and can “put a person at risk for abuse, neglect and exploitation.”
The exploitation does not just affect the rich. Your home can be liquidated, and any form of income — like a pension or Social Security check — can be used to pay the guardian’s fees. All of the court-appointed agents, such as the evaluators and guardian’s attorney, charge your estate even though you may have family willing to help for free or may not need a guardianship at all.
A guardianship is intended to protect a vulnerable person. However, unnecessary guardianships are increasingly being used as a means for financial gain.
In court filings, the family “friend” claimed he was Lillie’s “nephew.” He located the estranged granddaughter in Maryland, who had just filed for bankruptcy. She learned she was named in the nearly $5 million trust. Lillie might have made this choice for sentimental reasons related to complex relationship dynamics surrounding her late son. According to Lillie’s family, it has never been officially established whether the Maryland woman is a blood relative or fictive kin.
One day when Lillie was left alone, she called 911. She had been behind the walls of the friend’s gated community for eight months. In the report, police determined she had mental capacity. In the October 2012 hearing — with Lillie, my mother and sister in the room — the judge denied the petitions from the granddaughter and “friend,” and saw no need for guardianship.
Your home can be liquidated, and any form of income — like a pension or Social Security check — can be used to pay the guardian’s fees.
We thought it was over, but the real fight was just beginning.
In Palm Coast, Lillie discovered that the granddaughter had removed Lillie’s name and replaced it with her own on the trust accounts and assumed the role of successor trustee. The law firm representing the “granddaughter” (“the Firm”) kept claiming Lillie was “paranoid.”
Even though the granddaughter had testified, “I wouldn’t say that I was that close to my grandmother,” the Firm filed papers stating that she had “a long, loving relationship” with Lillie.
After a 25-minute meeting, the three court-appointed evaluators recommended stripping away all of Lillie’s rights. They said she was “paranoid” because she thought someone was trying to steal her money. She named three specific people (which is not general paranoia).
In my view, Lillie’s claim of being victimized should have been investigated. Instead, the judge placed Lillie under guardianship. In 2013, the court named my mother limited guardian and trustee per Lillie’s request.
After a 25-minute meeting, the three court-appointed evaluators recommended stripping away all of Lillie’s rights. They said she was ‘paranoid’ because she thought someone was trying to steal her money.
Lillie testified in court whenever possible to oppose the so-called granddaughter’s actions. Even with the mounting stress, she lived a somewhat normal existence with family — having dinner, watching movies, etc. In 2015, everything changed when the case was moved to Flagler County.
The new judge put aside previous rulings, suspended my mother with no hearing or evidence of wrongdoing, and appointed three court agents paid out of my aunt’s assets.
On Aug. 30, 2016, the emergency temporary guardian and the attorney ad litem — the person appointed as Lillie’s attorney — seized her from a doctor’s appointment. The Firm supported the action in filings.
The team refused to disclose her location while they stripped her remaining rights (without Lillie or us in the hearing), liquidated her assets and used her money to oppose our attempts to free her. It was an unfair fight.
Despite emergency motions to free Lillie, the judge continued to rule in favor of her appointees and the Firm. I filed complaints and contacted various levels of government, from Florida’s governor to the FBI. An investigator in the sheriff’s office said that since a judge signed off on the actions, there was nothing he could do.
In November 2018, we found Lillie through private investigators. She was an hour away in a locked-down memory care facility. Immediately, my mother and I flew to Florida. Through grace, we had a joyous reunion. Lillie was shocked that she was being hidden, and she stated on camera that she wanted to be free.
Once again, we thought it was over. Instead, they blocked us from even speaking with her.
On Dec. 31, 2020, Lillie died alone at the age of 92, apparently of COVID-19. She was cremated before we found out two weeks later. Out of the eight years in guardianship, she spent over four years in isolation away from her loved ones.
The team refused to disclose her location while they … liquidated her assets and used her money to oppose our attempts to free her. It was an unfair fight.
In probate, the people Lillie had stated were victimizing her took the rest of the estate. My mother and sister were in the will, but it had been voided. Even though we received a report outlining possible criminal violations by the court-appointed guardian, she is still practicing elder law.
I wish we had known people were exploiting the guardianship system and targeting seniors for money. I became an elder advocate to prevent others from experiencing this court-sanctioned hell.
My mother still cries at night, and my sister has nightmares. When anger wells up, I get on the yoga mat. That is my solace, with the belief that the universe will settle the score.
In the last picture we have of my aunt, she is holding a Bible and rosary. I must believe she is at peace and that this was all for a greater purpose.
Related: AARP Florida Joins Conversation on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, June 15