The Netflix movie I Care a Lot provides a dark, violent, and somewhat comedic take on the real-life and not-at-all funny dangers of the legal guardianship system. While the film’s twisting plot may seem far-fetched, it sheds light on the tragic phenomenon that is the abuse of seniors at the hands of crooked “professional” guardians.
In this two-part series, we’ll discuss how the movie depicts such abuse, how this can occur in real life, and what you can do to prevent something similar from happening to you or your loved ones. For support in putting protective planning vehicles in place, meet with us as your Personal Family Lawyer®.
Note: This article contains spoilers for the movie I Care a Lot.
At the beginning of the movie, we meet Marla Grayson. Ms. Grayson is a crooked professional guardian who makes her living by preying on vulnerable seniors. A professional guardian is a person appointed by the court to make legal and financial decisions for “wards” of the court, who are deemed unable to make such decisions for themselves.
Marla targets wealthy victims and gets a judge to order these individuals unfit to care for themselves and then appoint her as their guardian. From there, she and her business partner/ girlfriend, Fran, move the wards into a nursing home, seize their homes, and sell all of their assets.
Marla’s scheme takes a turn for the worse when her latest victim, Jennifer Peterson, turns out to be the mother of a Russian mob boss named Roman Lunyov. After Jennifer is placed in a long-term care facility, Roman tries unsuccessfully to get his mother out of the facility. He does this first by bribing Marla, then through the court, and finally by trying to break her out.
While this may seem ludicrous, this kind of abuse actually happens outside of the movies to seniors with significant assets, even those with caring adult children.
At this point, the movie descends into a violent back-and-forth between Roman and Marla, as they each try and fail to kill one another. They do this until they both decide that rather than murdering each other, they could make more money by going into business together.
The movie then fast forward to several years later, we learn that Marla and Roman have become millionaires after starting a global chain of senior care services, called Grayson Guardianships, which employs thousands of crooked guardians overseeing hundreds of thousands of “clients” all over the world.
Based On True Events
With its over-the-top violence, some might dismiss I Care a Lot as nothing but Hollywood hype and find it hard to believe that an operation as sinister as Marla’s could ever actually exist. But the fact is, the movie’s writer and director, J. Blakeson, came up with the idea after reading news stories about very similar situations. Knowing such things actually happen makes the movie even more terrifying.
“The idea first came when I heard news stories about these predatory legal guardians who were exploiting this legal loophole and exploiting the vulnerability in the system to take advantage of older people, basically stripping them of their life and assets to fill their own pockets,” Blakeson told Esquire Magazine. “They run through their money as fast as possible, store them in the worst care home, and just forget about them. Just park them and then move on to the next one, and that felt almost like a gangster’s operation.”
And while the real-life scammers have yet to reach a level on par with Grayson’s Guardians, one crooked professional guardianship business in Las Vegas did manage to bilk hundreds of unsuspecting seniors out of their life savings. As we detailed in our previous article, Use Estate Planning to Avoid Adult Guardianship—and Elder Abuse, a real-life Marla Grayson named April Parks, who owned a Las Vegas-based company called A Private Professional Guardian, was sentenced to up to 40 years in prison after being indicted on more than 200 felonies for using her guardianship status to swindle more than 150 seniors.
In her case, prosecutors described how Parks used a shady network of social workers and medical professionals who helped her track down her elderly victims. By being on the lookout for wealthy seniors with a history of health issues and few living relatives, Parks was often able to obtain court-sanctioned guardianship during court hearings that lasted less than two minutes.
From there, the guardians would force the elderly into assisted-living facilities and nursing homes. They would then sell off their homes and other assets and keep the proceeds for themselves. The guardians were often able to prevent the seniors from seeing or speaking with their family members, leaving them isolated and even more vulnerable.
The Most Punitive Civil Penalty
What makes these cases particularly tragic is the fact that most of everything these unscrupulous guardians did is perfectly legal. As Blakeson put it, “They had the law on their side, and there was nothing you could do.” Although guardianships are designed to protect the elderly, guardianship can turn out to be more of a punishment than a benefit.
In a 2018 New York Times article detailing the state of the guardianship system in New York, Claude Pepper, a Florida congressman, described guardianship as “the most punitive civil penalty that can be levied against an American citizen, with the exception, of course, of the death penalty.”
Once you’ve been placed under court-ordered guardianship, you essentially lose all of your civil rights. Whether it’s a family member or a professional, the person named as your guardian has complete legal authority to control your life. While guardianship is governed by state law and therefore varies from state to state, some of the most common powers guardians are granted include the following:
- Determining where you live
- Complete control over your finances and assets
- Making all of your healthcare decisions
- Placing restrictions on your communications and interactions with others
- Making decisions about your daily life
- Making end-of-life decisions
Additionally, though it’s possible for a guardianship to be terminated if it can be proven that the need for guardianship no longer exists, a study by the American Bar Association (ABA) found that such attempts typically fail. Those family members who do try to fight against court-appointed guardians frequently end up paying hefty sums of money in attorney’s fees and court costs.
Protection Through Planning
Given the potential for neglect, abuse, and exploitation that guardianship affords, it’s crucial that seniors and their families take the proper steps to prevent the possibility of falling prey to such scams. Moreover, because any adult could face court-ordered guardianship if they become incapacitated by illness or injury, it’s vital that every person over age 18 take proactive measures to prepare for potential incapacity.
Fortunately, there are multiple Wills and Trusts planning tools that can prevent such abuse. With us, as your Personal Family Lawyer®, we can put planning vehicles in place. We can also offer ongoing advisory and support that would make it practically impossible for a legal guardian to ever be appointed against your wishes.
Next week, we’ll continue with part two in this series on the dark side of adult guardianship and offer tips for how you can avoid the potential for abuse.
This article is a service of Levi L. Alexander, Personal Family Lawyer®. We do not just draft documents. We help to ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. This is why we offer a Family Wealth Planning Session™. During this session, you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office to schedule a Family Wealth Planning Session and mention this article to find out how to get this $750 session for free.