Thursday, September 27, 2018
First the bad -- or at least frustrating -- news. On Thursday, September 27, we received word that Senate Bill 884, the long-awaited legislation providing key reforms of guardianship laws in Pennsylvania, was now "dead" in the water and will not move forward this year. Apparently one legislator raised strong objections to proposed amendments to SB 884, amendments influenced by recent high-profile reports of abuse by a so-called professional guardian who had been appointed by courts in multiple cases in eastern Pennsylvania.
The objections reportedly focused on one portion of the bill that would have required both law guardians (typically family members) and professional guardians to undergo a criminal background check before being appointed to serve. The amendment did not condition appointment on the absence of a criminal record, except where proposed "professional guardians" had been convicted of specific crimes. For other crimes or for lay guardians, the record information was deemed important to permit all interested parties and the court to make informed decisions about who best to appoint.
What is next? Pennsylvanians will look to new leadership in the 2019-20 session in the hope for a new bill that resolves differences and that can make it through both houses. In the meantime, the courts are already moving forward with procedural reforms, adopted in 2018 at the direction of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
And that leads us to a more positive note about guardianship reform in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Common Pleas Judge Lois Murphy testified this week during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting about the Pennsylvania Courts' new Guardianship Tracking System (GTS). It is now operational in 19 counties (out of 67 total counties) in Pennsylvania, including coming online in the major urban counties for Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Judge Murphy reported that GTS is "already paying dividends," and she gave the example of a case in which the reporting system triggered a red flag for an estate worth more than $1 million, much higher than originally predicted, making appointment of different guardian more appropriate.
Judge Murphy predicts that as the tracking system becomes operational statewide, it should generate valuable answers, such as how many persons are subject to guardianships at any point in time, how much in assets are under management, what percentages of the pointed guardians are family members (as opposed to professionals), and what percentages of those served are over or under age 60. The hope is that GTS will also permit coordination of information about appointed guardians in state courts with information in the federal system on those appointed as Social Security representative payees, thus, again, providing more comprehensive information about trustworthiness of such fiduciaries.
You can see Judge Murphy's testimony, and hear her reasons for criminal background checks and appointment of counsel to represent alleged incapacitated persons, along with the views of retiring Senator Greenleaf and Senator Art Haywood, in the recording of the September 24 hearing recording below.
Judge Murphy testifies from approximately the 35 minute mark to the 43 minute mark, and again from 1 hour 33, to one hour 44.
Bottom line for the week -- and perhaps the session? You can certainly grow old just waiting for guardianship reform in Pennsylvania.