New Jersey Considers Law to Prevent ‘Granny Snatching’

Beth Fitzgerald | May 21, 2012 | Health Care
Law would alleviate jurisdictional issues when families feud over guardianship

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The New Jersey Legislature is considering a new law to prevent an elder abuse known as “granny snatching” by joining a multi-state network that protects adults who need the assistance of a guardian when families feud.

“There has been one case after another where we have venue challenges and jurisdictional challenges that have caused a lot of problems,” said Sen. Fred H. Madden (D-Gloucester), co-sponsor of the legislation.

Typically, a NJ court appoints a daughter as guardian for an elderly mother incapacitated by Alzheimer’s. The mother then visits another daughter in Florida, who goes to court seeking to overturn the New Jersey guardianship order and be named the new legal guardian.

The bill now under consideration in Trenton — the New Jersey Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act — would allow New Jersey’s guardianship orders to be recognized by other states with the law.

The bills, S1755 and A2628, establish uniform procedures for addressing interstate conflicts regarding adult guardianship issues, and brings New Jersey into an national guardianship reciprocity network that includes more than 30 states.

The bill has bipartisan support and was approved last week by the Senate’s health committee. Co-sponsors are Madden and Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego (R-Burlington).

“There have been cases where another family member moved to establish guardianship in another state, and they prevailed,” Madden said. “We had no strength to bring the individual back to New Jersey, which was where the original guardianship had taken place.”

Such feuds can lead to costly court that deplete the elderly ward’s resources and tie of up courts, at taxpayer’s expense.

“I am hoping [the bill] will save money, and it will help family members in different states by making laws uniform and consistent,” Addiego said. “Guardianship cases stretching beyond state boundaries raise questions about jurisdiction, laws and rights in today’s mobile society.”

Elder law attorney Sharon Rivenson Mark, president of the Guardianship Association of New Jersey, said the legislation would not put an end to dispute among family members. What the legislation will do, however, is address the issue of how to determine which state has jurisdiction in a guardianship case.

In the event of a disagreement among the relatives over which state has proper authority, the law provides that the individual’s home state has primary jurisdiction, followed by the state where the individual has a significant connection. The bill defines “home state” as the state in which the respondent was physically present for at least six consecutive months.

Hudson County Surrogate Donald W. De Leo said there are thousands of adults in New Jersey who have been placed under the care of court-appointed guardians. When a ward living in Hudson County is relocated out of New Jersey, the guardian has to notify his office that a new guardianship order was issued in the new state.

“We don’t want the ward to fall through the cracks, with no one officially in charge,” he said.

Marilyn Askin, chief legislative advocate for AARP, said 31 states and the District of Columbia have enacted this law since 2007. It is on the governor’s desk in Hawaii and is pending in seven states, including Florida. If an incapacitated person moves from one state to another, and both states have adopted this law, there is no need to commence a full guardianship procedure in the individual’s new state of residence.

Mark is currently working on a case that illustrates the complexities. She is the court-appointed guardian for a New Jersey man whose family wants him to move to Alabama to be near his relatives, where a member of the family has agreed to take over as guardian. The new guardian must go into court in New Jersey and be appointed guardian, then initiate a new procedure in Alabama to have the Alabama court appoint him as guardian. But if both states had adopted this law, the relative could become the guardian in New Jersey, and then just file his guardianship papers in Alabama.

“You file the order in the new state, and that is the end of it,” Mark said. “Because if you are the guardian in New Jersey, you will be recognized as the guardian in any other state that passes this law.”

The Alabama case is uncontested, simple and straightforward, Mark noted, “but they still have to spend money and use court time in Alabama to have the guardianship approved in Alabama.”

James W. McCracken, the state ombudsman for the institutionalized elderly, is charged with investigating allegations of abuse of the elderly living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. While his office has not been actively engaged in pushing for this legislation, “we are supportive of a consistent approach among states about how to deal with jurisdictional, transfer, and enforcement issues that will minimize complications for individuals with guardians and ensure that their rights are protected.”

Mary Kubiak, chair of the South Jersey Advocacy Committee of the Alzheimer’s Association Delaware Valley Chapter, testified last week in favor of the law. “Not all family members may live in the same state and are often limited by the guardianship restrictions specific to each state. The family priority must be caring for their loved one, not fighting inconsistent legislatures.”

While the law alleviates jurisdictional issues, it is not expected to put an end to family quarrels over how to deal with an incapacitated family member.

Among the best-known cases is that of Lillian Glasser, a multi-millionaire Highland Park widow who suffered from dementia and Parkinson’s. While Glasser was visiting her daughter in Texas in 2005, the daughter applied for and was awarded guardianship. Relatives in New Jersey opposed the guardianship on the grounds that Glasser was a New Jersey resident. The cost of the ensuing legal dispute was estimated at more than $1 million.

Eventually a court ruled that Glasser should return to New Jersey where a new guardian was appointed who was not a member of the family. The case was appealed to the appellate division of Superior Court in New Jersey, which issued a decision last July affirming the lower court decision. That ruling is now being appealed to the New Jersey Supreme Court.

New Brunswick attorney Joseph J. Catanese served as Glasser’s guardian from 2007 until her death last September at the age of 91. Catanese said the bill’s basic intent, to enable states to recognize guardianship orders issued by other states, “is a great idea, depending on what the standards are from state to state. In New Jersey standards are pretty high.”

In Glasser’s case, “the very first obstacle we had was that Texas law did not require domicile, whereas New Jersey law says that you have to be a domiciliary of the state of New Jersey for the guardianship statute to apply. Glasser was a domiciliary of New Jersey, this was her home. In Texas you only had to show a connection to the state.”

Glasser had a vacation home in Boca Raton Florida and in 2009 she was relocated there permanently in Florida because of the weather. Catanese oversaw Glasser’s care by a staff that included a care manager, 24 hour nursing care and a live-in housekeeper.

He visited Glasser in Florida each month throughout his guardianship. “I usually would have lunch or dinner with her, and then take her to doctor appointments, so I could hear first hand from the doctor what was going on.”