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Overhaul of state guardianship laws proposed

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – An Albuquerque state senator has rolled out a massive rewrite of New Mexico’s legal guardianship laws aimed at adding more openness to a system that’s come under fire for being veiled in secrecy and prone to financial abuses.

And a spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez said Friday that the two-term Republican governor would add the legislation to the agenda for the ongoing 30-day session, removing a major potential hurdle.

Sen. Jim White, a Republican, has been working for months on the 187-page bill, which would take effect at the start of next year.

He said he believes there is a bipartisan appetite to tackle the complex legislation during this year’s short session, which began this week and ends Feb. 15. The House sponsor of the bill is Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat.

Sen. Jim White

“Folks have found a way to make things ugly” under the current system, White told reporters during a news conference Friday at the state Capitol. “They’ve taken advantage of the system and abused it.”

The legislation, Senate Bill 19, would require that guardianship proceedings be open to the public – though medical records would still be kept secret – and that more notification be given to family members when a legal guardian is appointed and if guardians fail to adequately carry out their duties.

White, who is not an attorney, said much of the bill is based on a model crafted by the national Uniform Law Commission for states to adopt around the country.

It will also eventually be amended to include recommendations from a Supreme Court guardianship commission that spent nine months last year studying the issue, he said.

Typically, those placed under guardianship or conservatorships are elderly, those with dementia or Alzheimer’s or others who need help with their decision-making or finances.

Under New Mexico’s current system, guardianship proceedings are sequestered and closed to the public. The only publicly available record is a court docket sheet identifying the parties involved and a general list of the actions and filings in the case.

However, that system has led to criticism, as family members have complained to the New Mexico guardianship commission and the Journal about being barred from seeing their loved ones for weeks or months once a professional guardian is appointed.

Some guardians restrict visitation or have allowed only monitored meetings, contending that certain relatives upset the person under guardianship.

In addition, the push for change has been bolstered by recent federal criminal allegations that executives from two nonprofit firms that handled guardianship and/or conservatorship duties in New Mexico have embezzled millions of dollars of client funds. The companies, Desert State Life Management and Ayudando Guardians Inc., have since closed.

Under the bill pending at the Roundhouse, legal guardians would not be able to bar visitors – both in person and via letters and emails – unless they could show the visit would pose significant risk to the individual or if authorized to do so by a court order.

White said the legislation does not call for any additional funding to be appropriated, though it could shift some money from the state guardianship commission to the courts for administrative duties.

His bill is the only bill filed so far on the issue of guardianships, though others could be introduced in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the proposed law would also permit bonds to be required of conservators – a protection already proposed by the New Mexico guardianship commission and recently put into place by district judges in Albuquerque.

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